2011: Donating 6% for our 6th anniversary

It’s been a full year since I last posted here. I’m posting here again because I’ve joined Mako’s Iron Blogger, and the set-up I had for using my Google+ posts is now broken. So I’m reposting my latest Google+ post, which happens to be exactly the same topic as my last post a year ago.

As we have done the past two years, Chris and I are donating to various causes for our wedding anniversary: 6% of our pre-tax income for 6 years of marriage (next year it should be 7%, etc.). We announce it publicly hoping to prompt others to make similar efforts to give more — and to give effectively. Our anniversary was actually October 29, but our choices were delayed as we waited for GiveWell’s recommendations on effective charity organizations (which were released Tuesday Nov 29th). Our choices are split 50/50, below is my planned breakdown:

40% to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF): This is one of GiveWell’s two top recommendations this year. AMF distributes insecticide-treated nets for protecting against malaria infection. GiveWell estimates the cost per life saved is just under $2,000 — malaria is not usually fatal, so this means a fair amount of disability due to illness is also being prevented.

40% to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI): This is the other of GiveWell’s two top recommendations. SCI assists in the treatment of neglected tropical diseases in Africa, in particular schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths (both parasitic worm diseases). While the diseases SCI treats are not generally fatal, they create a large burden of chronic illness and disability. I believe reducing this burden is important to creating lasting change in developing countries as a healthier population is more able to contribute to and improve society. GiveWell estimates overall cost per treatment is around 50 to 80 cents, depending on how conservative estimates are.

8% to GiveWell itself. GiveWell continues to guide our giving by doing extensive research on the effectiveness of charity organizations. This is not a trivial issue: oversight can be quite sloppy and the incentives of competing for donations can push organizations to advertise ridiculously optimistic numbers. “For just $1 you could save a life!” fails to capture the statistical reality that a life is saved by that particular $1 only a tiny fraction of the time. A realistic and honest accounting of overall effectiveness is needed for charitable giving (even the most effective charities, by GiveWell’s estimates, achieve a cost-per-life-saved in the $500-$1000 range).

The remainder of my giving is targeting organizations which affect the society around me, rather than direct poverty relief. I think these organizations benefit society in a more general and long term manner — it is less measurable, but hopefully these make important differences in my society and the world, in the long run.

4% to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Technology is increasingly able to surveil and restrict individuals in targetted and invisible fashions that can leave most of society unaware of the consequences. In addition, I believe the recent Occupy movements are addressing an important issue in our society: the deepening gap of income and social inequality. Technological progress will only support this concentration of wealth in a few individuals as we become more and more able to automate and crowdsource tasks, reducing the number of individuals employed to accomplish them (even highly professional tasks!). I hope the ACLU represents an organization that will protect individual freedoms and protect grassroots civil movements like Occupy.

4% to WBUR (Boston public radio): Public radio’s news is how I shape my understanding of the world and has led me to the awarenesses I have now. I am optimistic: I believe simply hearing broad and balanced reporting (and I do believe it is usually fairly balanced) about the world and events will lead others to think responsibly about how to help others and benefit society.

4% to Wikipedia: In keeping with that theme — that simple knowledge is part of the power to create change — I support Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s local effect is obvious, we all use it in our daily lives. It also serves as another form of reporting, instantly updating in response to current events. Globally, I see it as potentially the single cheapest way to disseminate knowledge to the developing world. For now I trust that individuals will find ways to access the internet and Wikipedia’s store of knowledge, and I support Wikipedia itself for being that repository.

Why we give: Our giving began after reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. Each year we increase that amount — while projections for our pattern may seem unrealistically large in the distant future, for now we trust ourselves to get used to it (not unlike the apocryphal frog in a pot). Peter Singer himself began giving 10% of his income in graduate school (a notoriously low income lifestyle) and now gives 25% (note that he has raised three children with his wife Renata while doing this). Giving so much all at once is too much to expect of anybody, but we hope that by committing a little more each year we grow closer to such an ideal.

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