Ping (zestyping) wrote,

Continuing the pledge.

Last year around this time, I decided to begin an experiment: to match everything I spend on a non-essential purchase with an equal donation to an effective charity.

The experiment was successful! It succeeded in every way I had hoped it would: I donated much more to charity than I ever had before; I feel great about it; I learned something about my spending patterns; and I had fun in 2010. A lot of fun. (Certain others can attest.)

It also had a further benefit I had not predicted: I learned more about charities and effective philanthropy.

I find that I like this method of determining the amount to donate. It seems less arbitrary than choosing a percentage of income, which would leave me wondering whether I picked the right percentage. For the past year, every gift for myself was also a gift for someone else. That feels right, and I'm going to keep doing it.

(In case you're curious: the list of charities.)

(Not wrong, but a little odd to see my real name getting tweeted everywhere. I'm @zestyping on Twitter.)
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Glad to hear, congrats! Did you end up choosing any new effective charities, or changing the ones you'd picked out?


January 8 2011, 07:04:50 UTC 8 years ago Edited:  January 8 2011, 07:05:34 UTC

Thanks! I did end up with some others on the list. Picking charities seems like a whole other interesting discussion, so the list is in another post. I see you posted your list too—congratulations on your fifth anniversary!
For your warmth, depth and generosity (and amongst myriad other reasons), this is why I love you. xoxo
Someone linked to your blog via Twitter, and now I can't remember who it was, but this is an absolutely brilliant idea. I lost my job a year ago, and so I've been careful about where I give, basically because there ain't much to go around, but this is perfect, and I'm going to try to do something similar! Thanks for the inspiration.

Thank you! I'm excited to hear that you like the idea. I'm curious to know what you decide to do—please let me know how it goes.
Congratulations for your successes in altruism. I have been playing with the same idea for years, but haven't put it in pratice yet. It's very nice to see that someone has and that it works.
Hi David, thanks for writing. What kinds of ideas have you been playing with? Any insights on what makes it easier or harder to put into practice?
Thanks for the reply, Ping. I'm afraid this is the first time I return to the thread, so I didn't read it until now.

Well, basically I've long been aware of my intuition that where giving is essential for providing people with what they need to survive, and beyond that, to have a chance to pursue happiness, it should take precedence over spending on non-essential things for oneself, much in line with Singer's writings (I'm also in line with him in that I include non-human animals too in my concerns). But how far should we go? Unfortunately the state of the world is such that a truly equitable and totally altruistic principle would require giving until one is barely above the poverty level below which we find our target population. But then, we do on the other hand, as you insightfully say, need to stay in love with life; and in our social and cultural context, and unless one embraces a strong and isolating form of asceticism, this implies enjoying some material comforts beyond the merely essential.

I began thinking of percentages, but just as you point out, this generally leaves people giving far less than they could (and thus should?), especially the more wealthy people. But when you think about it a bit more, it’s not so much a matter of deciding how much to set aside for “charity”, but one of having a general sense of responsibility regarding how we decide to use the wealth we have. This immediately ties in with two things: informed, conscientious and responsible consuming, on one hand, and giving, on the other. There is then a small step to take from this point to linking spending on oneself and giving money for the benefit of others, which is the step you have taken.

That was my thought process, although in the beginning I tried to work out proportions. Spending on essentials (including those of others) is much more important than doing so on any given non-essential thing (even though sparing some room for non-essentials is, I think, important - far more so than one might conclude from observing the relative unimportance of any given non-essential item), so what should be the appropriate ratio of giving to spending on oneself? 1:2? 1:1? 2:1? 10:1? The answer seems to me to depend both on a scale of (diminishing) essentiality and, again, on one’s level of wealth. So, in the end it’s not much different from trying to decide a percentage of one’s wealth. However, in practice I see how it can lead to increased giving, even if regardless of how wealthy one is one gives only 1:1. And 1:1 seems like an easy thing to communicate, an idea that more people would instinctively grasp and hopefully embrace than reflecting on the possibility of different ratios.

There you go. Those are some of the thoughts I’ve been having. Putting them in practice can be tricky when one doesn’t have a high or a steady enough income. Also not knowing where best to send donations can be daunting in the beginning. Add to this the many distractions in life and other trains of thought, together with procrastination, and the idea keeps getting delayed. You are an inspiration, though. Thank you.
I'm curious about what percentage of your income you ended up donating using this method?

i'm a member of Giving What We Can ( (glad you've found the site) and there are some very good arguments for using a percentage - or alternatively giving away everything above the essentials.

i'm not sure why you consider your method less arbitrary - it is also arbitrary but regulated by your criteria for essential/non-essential and your own hedonism essentially. btw, i think it's a great idea and think many people would be able to take it on board.

i guess though, there's the possibility of getting stuck - what happens if you spend more on non-essential items than you can match? or purchase major assets - like a car or house (essential or not).

great to see what you're doing though.

(and thanks for the link to mint)
Hi David, thanks for writing!

Non-essential spending came out to 21%; I donated 24%.

Glad to hear you're a member of GWWC—which chapter? I applied to become a member when I discovered the site a week ago; no reply yet. I guess Toby or other folks must be pretty busy or on holiday. :)
i'm not sure why you consider your method less arbitrary - it is also arbitrary but regulated by your criteria for essential/non-essential and your own hedonism essentially. btw, i think it's a great idea and think many people would be able to take it on board.
Certainly, of course, this method is arbitrary, like any method that creates artificial causality between some other action and donation. It's just as arbitrary as, say, sponsoring someone to run a race for charity—it makes no logical sense to "run for a cure"—but people do it. So, I don't claim that the offset method is objectively less arbitrary, just that it feels less arbitrary to me. I can make sense out of the 1:1 relationship.

I think it would be really interesting to talk about the effects that particular donation rules have on the giver. What incentives does the rule create? How does the rule affect givers with different personal needs and different levels of income? On what does it focus the giver's attention? How will that affect the giver's future course of giving?

When I look at it in these terms, the offset method has some properties that I find attractive. It aligns the act of giving with personal enjoyment (unlike every other method I know, in which giving and enjoyment are opposed). It obligates the giver to decide what is essential and what is not. And the offset rule works for everyone, regardless of income or expense level, without having to state any dollar figures. I haven't come across another rule that has any of these three properties... are you aware of any?
Thanks for the reply. Thanks for sharing that info as well - afterwards I thought it might be a bit too personal. It's great to see it working so well for you and enabling you to give so much.

I agree that it would be interesting to think about the rules, but I guess when I made my pledge with GWWC I wouldn't have thought about the commitment as being about adhering to rules. There's a bigger discussion in there about motivation I think. There's a discussion board for GWWC members where I recall some talk about what gets people to sign up - I'll have a look soon (or I guess you can have a look soon!) for an overview.

I don't think I agree that in every other method (we'd need to define them all really) giving and enjoyment are opposed. I certainly don't feel that way about giving. In fact, for me it is simply a logical argument for giving. A very small change in my income can have a large impact on other people's lives. Personal enjoyment isn't part of those thoughts.

It's great to get people to address what they consider essential or not, but i still don't think the offset rule works for everyone regardless of income - i think for people on lower incomes, it is probably easier to track a percentage than to keep track of what you spend on non-essentials while also making sure you have enough reserve to match your spending. Whereas with a percentage you can always put that into your budget and know it's not available for other uses.

I'm sure Toby or someone there will get back to you soon. And then you'll get a lovely postal letter.
and thanks for clarifying the method. i think it has a lot of merit.