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Dedicated Donors May Not Want to Sign the Giving What We Can Pledge

Cross-posted to my blog.

The Giving What We Can pledge serves as a useful way to commit to donating 10% (or more) of your income, and probably also helps show by example that donating this much money is a reasonable and achievable thing to do. I believe it serves as a useful way to commit yourself to donating if you suspect that your commitment might waver. But there are some considerations against signing the pledge, and these considerations look particularly persuasive if you already have a strong commitment to helping the world.

Some of this might be obvious, but I think it’s worth discussing—people often talk about why you should take the pledge but rarely talk about under what circumstances you shouldn’t, and the pledge isn’t the right choice for everyone. These counterpoints I raise don’t cover everything; I’m mostly drawing on my own personal experiences, and I’m sure other people have experiences that I haven’t had.

Losing flexibility

The more you donate, the less money you have to spend on other things, and the tighter your budget becomes. Maybe you’re earning more money than you need, in which case you can donate all your spare income with no trouble.

But it’s important to remember how your money needs will change over time. Maybe you will have no problem keeping up your donations for the next few years, but things could change. You might decide to have children, which will dramatically increase your expenditures (although some people with kids still donate a lot). You might start a startup or a non-profit, or take a job at a non-profit where you won’t be making much. Many people consider pledging in college, when it’s hard to anticipate your expenses as a young adult, and anyone at any age can have unexpected medical expenses or life-changing circumstances. Before you commit to donate some amount of money, make sure you will still be able to afford it in the future.

Most people’s expenditures increase throughout their lives but their income increases as well, so they shouldn’t have a problem keeping up the same rate of donation. That said, do consider whether you expect your income to increase as much or more than your spending.

People might be reluctant to take a job doing direct work if that would compromise their ability to fulfill their pledge. Since there are a lot of opportunities to do good in direct work that may be more valuable than donating 10%, we wouldn’t want to discourage the former in pursuit of the latter.

Overjustification effect

I recently caught myself following this chain of reasoning:

  1. I would like to donate a sizable chunk of my income in 2017 because donating money helps the world.
  2. I pledged to donate 20% of my income, so I need to donate at least $25,000.
  3. Therefore I will donate $25,000, because I pledged that I would.
  4. If I donate $25,000, max out my 401(k), and exercise my stock options, I will have negative cash flow for 2017. That is bad.
  5. Of these three big expenditures, the pledge is the least important, since keeping my word on something like this doesn’t matter as much as being able to retire comfortably. So maybe I should donate less.1

This reasoning obviously doesn’t make sense—I initially wanted to donate because I thought it would help the world, not just because it’s what I said I would do. But after I promised to donate 20% of my income, I forgot my original motivation and only thought about the pledge.

This is a version of the overjustification effect: if you get an extrinsic incentive to do something, it reduces your intrinsic motivation. I saw this happen to myself when taking the pledge reduced my intrinsic motivation to donate. Fortunately, I figured out what happened and reminded myself that donating money has inherent value and it’s not only about keeping a promise.

So even though you give yourself an external incentive to increase your commitment to doing a good thing, sometimes it can paradoxically decrease your commitment by reducing your intrinsic motivation. This could even reduce how much you donate—perhaps you would have donated 15%, but since you pledged to donate 10%, now you only donate the amount that you committed to.

Conclusion

I believe that people usually should take the Giving What We Can pledge. Most people in the effective altruism community donate less than 10% of their income—if more people took the pledge, we would see more donations, which would help the world. If you suspect that your future commitment to doing good may waver, you could take the pledge as a way to keep yourself on track. But before you do take it, consider some relevant factors:

  1. Are you going to need a lot of money at some point in the future, such that it will become harder for you to keep donating as much?
  2. Might you want to focus a lot of time on doing good in some way that prevents you from making much money, such as starting a non-profit; and if so, would you be able to continue donating the same percentage of your income?

I expect most people should be able to donate 10% of their income (although I’m not in a great position to judge since I have been lucky enough never to have to live on a low salary). I pledged to donate 20% of my income, and while I expect that I will always be able to donate that much, it does substantially limit me in some ways—most obviously, it makes it harder for me to switch to a job that pays a low salary. I regret pledging to donate this much, and perhaps I should not have pledged at all. I do place high value on keeping my word, so the Giving What We Can pledge could potentially help keep me committed; but I was already committed to donating and probably would have donated as much if I had not signed the pledge, so signing it only imposed limits on me without providing any benefits.

Some readers may be in a similar position to where I was before I signed the Giving What We Can pledge. If so, you should consider what benefits the pledge provides you and how it might hurt you, and decide if it makes sense given your personal circumstances.

Notes

  1. For the record, I am not going to break my pledge in 2017 and I have no intention of ever doing so. ↊

Comments (21)

Comment author: Buck 30 October 2016 07:47:31AM 6 points [-]

Very useful post!

Perhaps we should have a norm against making a firm pledge for more than 10% of your income.

I've seen some people take more informal pledges to not live above a certain consumption standard. That kind of pledge avoids many of these problems, but raises some other problems of its own and is harder to define.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 30 October 2016 04:11:17PM 5 points [-]

A "maximum consumption" pledge has the advantage that it lets you use your income for things like saving money or exercising stock options (like I discuss in OP), it just doesn't let you spend money on yourself instead of donating.

One possible concern there is what happens if you move to an area with a more expensive cost of living, or if you want to buy a more expensive house close to work to save commute time—which costs a lot, but could help you be more effective by giving you more free time.

Comment author: Julia_Wise 11 November 2016 08:29:37PM 2 points [-]

Jeff and I used to talk about how much we spent - as opposed to saving, taxes, and giving. At least for public communication, this got pretty confusing (because it's really easy to misremember "these people spend x%" as "these people keep x% and give the rest away.") Then people could very reasonably be annoyed that we were being presented as keeping less than we really do, once you include savings.

Now we instead talk about how much we keep (although that includes taxes) vs. how much we give.

Comment author: Patrick 07 November 2016 05:43:06AM 1 point [-]

Another potential problem with a maximum-consumption pledge is that it acts as an effective 100% marginal tax rate, and so may reduce self-interested motivation for doing things that will increase one's salary.

Comment author: arunbharatula 10 November 2016 05:57:30AM 0 points [-]

Are there any formal pledges about consumption?

Comment author: Michael_S 30 October 2016 03:00:14PM 5 points [-]

I don't reject the argument that the GWWC pledge may not make sense for every single person. There are always exceptions. But I think it's quite small, and it's much more beneficial for us as a community to try to get as many people to pledge as possible.

In addition to what it might do for yourself, signing the pledge allows you to influence others. The more people sign the pledge and the more public they are, the more we spread giving a large portion of your income to effective charities as a cultural institution. I think that's very valuable in itself.

Additionally, some of the items you listed as conflicting with donations, eg. wanting a comfortable retirement, seem like items for which donation should take the higher priority from a utilitarian standpoint. I understand that's very difficult for people and many EAs will not be able to do this. That's reality. However, if the pledge gets you to cut back on these luxuries in favor of utilitarian actions, only because you feel obligated to keep the pledge, I think that's a good thing. If you face a conundrum like in the over justification effect, it may be more productive to try and rethink 5) than rethink 2).

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 30 October 2016 04:38:38PM 1 point [-]

I signed the pledge precisely so I could influence others; I probably should have mentioned that in the post. But I believe the effect here isn't large enough to justify the way the pledge restricts me financially, and I would prefer not to have signed it.

People who doubt their dedication to doing good have a stronger case for signing the pledge, because it can help them keep themselves committed. Paradoxically, the people most likely to sign the pledge—people like thebestwecan and Rohin Shah in the comments, me, and many of my friends, who already have a strong commitment to doing good—are the people who least need to sign it. I believe that people like this ("dedicated EAs") sign the pledge more often than they should and don't do a sufficiently good job of considering arguments against signing.

By all means Giving What We Can should keep doing outreach and getting people to sign the pledge. But people who already spend a lot of time trying to maximize the good they do should carefully consider whether signing the pledge helps or hinders that goal rather than only thinking about the upsides.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 30 October 2016 05:19:29PM 9 points [-]

Although there are dangers of having norms that dedicated EAs are less likely to pledge, because then not-pledging might become higher status in the community.

Comment author: brianwang712 30 October 2016 06:42:36PM *  1 point [-]

This is a good point; however, I would also like to point out that it could be the case that a majority of "dedicated donors" don't end up taking the pledge, without this becoming a norm. The norm instead could be "each individual should think through themselves, giving their own unique situations, whether or not taking the pledge is likely to be valuable," which could lead to a situation where "dedicated donors" tend not to take the pledge, but not necessarily to a situation where, if you are a "dedicated donor," you are expected not to take the pledge.

(I am highly uncertain as to whether or not this is how norms work; that is to say, whether norms connecting a group of people and a certain action could refrain from developing even though a majority of that group of people take that action.)

Comment author: Michael_S 30 October 2016 04:55:33PM 2 points [-]

I agree that the pledge is most useful for those who don't have as strong a dedication. But I expect it is useful for the vast majority of EAs. According to the EA survey, less than half of EAs donate even 10% of their income. So I think we have a far greater incidence of people not taking the pledge when they should than the other way around, even in the EA community. If EAs start putting greater weight on potential problems from the pledge, I expect that would be a net negative across the community.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 30 October 2016 08:28:02AM 3 points [-]

Personally, I think the overjustification effect happens to me a lot, and it would have been better if I had considered that before taking the pledge (though I'm fairly confident I would have taken it anyway). Thanks for writing about that.

However, I'm not too worried about the loss of flexibility, primarily because I don't see the commitment as that hard. I believe that the pledge is reasonable and lenient in cases like the ones you describe, especially increasing expenditures. I'm not sure where I got this belief from -- I think it was something from the Giving What We Can website? In any case, if that's the norm around the pledge, I don't think the loss of flexibility should be that important.

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 01 November 2016 06:47:50PM *  2 points [-]

Another meta consideration that is part of the flexibility argument is that in my case, throughout my life, present me has virtually always been smarter and cooler and more strategic than past me, and unless I think that development might reverse, it would therefore not be smart for present me to constrain future me.

The ways in which present me are smarter than past me have also been very hard to predict. Me_2014 has considered what would convince them not to donate to AMF. He had various ideas – increasing insecticide resistance, coordination problems among distribution partners, etc. He didn’t have an inkling even of the direction in which the actual reasons of me_2016 would lie (fundamental philosophical consideration of robustness and such).

This is probably not true for everyone, and since I’ll be going into ETG, it may also change for me, but if it is, then it’s an important factor to consider.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 31 October 2016 10:13:06PM 2 points [-]

The Pledge doesn't require you to donate 10% of your income as it was at its highest point, or what it was at the time you took it. If someone goes from making, say, $100k (USD) per year to $50k per year, nobody would fault you for donating $5k instead of $10k (or, in your case, $10k instead of $20k, if you indeed wanted to stick to the 20% number). Of course, you might think to yourself now that you have a higher-paying job and you've come to expect you will donate lots every year, you may indeed be reluctant to take a lower-paying job.

However, I think most of us in the EA community understand if someone went from a higher-paying to lower-paying job, they're likely to have a good reason. Starting a family, needing to move for personal reasons, taking a less stressful job, or looking after your health or that of a loved one are all perfectly legitimate reasons to take a lower salary. As long as income stays at a level where 10% is feasible to donate at all, I don't perceive a problem. If anyone chided one person in particular for it, the rest of us would come to their defense, as we collectively recognize these are necessary norms for making an effective altruist lifestyle robust, sustainable and marketable.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 01 November 2016 02:51:59AM 2 points [-]

That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that donating 10% of $50K is a lot harder than donating 10% of $100K.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 01 November 2016 04:18:19AM 0 points [-]

More of us could be encouraged to save more when we're making more money so it's easier to donate 10% of our annual income when it decreases. One could save money in the present as a cushion to donate later in the anticipation income may decrease in the future. Of course, this would require even more frugality than what might be considered usual for a GWWC member.

Comment author: AviN 02 November 2016 12:37:00PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks for this post. I took the "Try Giving" pledge last year but have decided not taken the lifetime pledge for now. I do not make want to make promises unnecessarily that I may plausibly break, and I do plan to suspend or stop giving if unexpected circumstances require it. The reality is that I'm more selfish than altruistic, and will prioritize the basic needs of myself and the people I care about before prioritizing the welfare of strangers.

Comment author: thebestwecan 30 October 2016 01:33:28PM *  1 point [-]

.

Comment author: Patrick 07 November 2016 06:15:39AM 0 points [-]

The Giving What We Can pledge doesn't make any mention of a time period (other than your working years) over which you must give the pledged percentage of your income:

For people earning a regular income, the Pledge commits you to giving at least 10% of your pre-tax income, until retirement, to the charities you believe will do the most good in the world.

If I were interpreting this as a legal contract, I would consider it fulfilled if someone donated nothing for their first forty working years and made it up by donating most of their salary in their last ten years. That would clearly go against the spirit of the pledge, but my point is that the pledge seems to allow for flexibility in when you give.

I don't think that you would have violated your pledge by giving less than your pledged percentage in a given year owing to a large one-time expense, so long as you make it up in subsequent years.

Comment author: DonyChristie 02 November 2016 01:29:04PM 0 points [-]

Can you change it back to 10%? If you can't, that sounds like a problem with the pledge system, not you. I think of Beeminder, with its adjustability that takes a week to set in. Perhaps a person could change the hard pledge that they have set themselves to, from a year out, like Beeminder taking a week for changes to set in.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 07 November 2016 03:36:19PM 0 points [-]

I can see a possibility that I would donate less after making a 10% pledge than I would with no pledge, because the 10% would anchor my donations downward. I would prefer to make no commitment than to commit 10%. Hopefully future me is self-aware enough to avoid this sort of anchoring, but it's a pretty strong bias that happens even when you know it's happening.

Comment author: Patrick 07 November 2016 06:35:21AM 0 points [-]

I agree, and I imagine you can adjust your pledge. If you pledged 50% as a doctor and later decided to change to a lower-paying non-profit career, I doubt whether Giving What We Can would blackball you for adjusting your pledge to 10%.

If the US government were to get rid of the charitable tax deduction or to sharply raise taxes, I couldn't meet my pledge. But I don't think that I'd be a worse person than I would've been had I correctly forecast changes in tax policy. I would simply update my pledge with Giving What We Can and get on with life.

Comment deleted 31 October 2016 09:04:14PM [-]