February 21st, 2013
Giving has become absurdly easy for me. I started giving when I was working part-time as a student: I’d give $30 any time I earned $300; then $50 when I’d earn $500. Now that I’m working full-time, every two weeks I glance at my paycheck and give 50%. I plan to give no less than 50% for the rest of my working life.
I know that sounds radical, but to me it’s a common sense way to live. I became persuaded of this after reading Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence and Morality in a college course on practical ethics. I was galvanized by his vision of each person’s personal moral ability to respond to poverty. Shortly after that, I connected to Giving What We Can, an organization whose members pledge to give at least 10% of their incomes for the rest of their working lives to the most cost-effective charities that are addressing poverty in the developing world.
Giving What We Can’s philosophy made immediate sense to me, and clearly I’m not the only one: since its launch in 2009, over 190 people have collectively pledged to give $45 million over their lifetimes. I’m energized by knowing that others share my commitment. In large part, I chose the 50% level for my giving because others in Bolder Giving and Giving What We Can set that standard. When there’s a new norm, it’s easier to make the leap.
Giving What We Can teaches that the effectiveness of charities matters far more than how much they spend on overhead. For example, it costs some charities about $50,000 to train one seeing-eye dog. With that same amount, another charity could provide vision-restoring cataract surgeries to 1,000 people in the developing world. Wouldn’t I rather fund the latter, even if that organization had higher overhead? I want to spread that message. That’s why I volunteer with the Rutgers chapter of Giving What We Can, organizing educational lectures on effective philanthropy, running fundraisers for effective charities, and encouraging students to make giving a steady part of their lives.
Giving 50% may seem exorbitant, but I’m keenly aware that as a high school math teacher, my starting salary of $47,000 puts me in the richest 1% of the world’s population and in the top 75% of the US wage earners. Even after giving 50% (pre-tax) I’m still the wealthiest 5% of the world’s population!
My basic expenses are low: rent and utilities $400/month (because I live with housemates) and food $150/month (vegetarian). I own a car but drive sparingly, and enjoy my free time by reading library books and being with friends, hiking and having potluck parties. Frugality is second nature to me, perhaps because I grew up in Russia where we were considered upper-middle-class because we had an apartment and could afford meat a few times a month. Purchasing clothes or toys was usually beyond us, so I learned young how to appreciate what I had and not long for unattainable things. Even with giving 50% I’m able to save and invest 10% of my earnings.
People sometimes assume I’m sacrificing to the detriment of my happiness, but it’s just the opposite: giving is one of the most rewarding parts of my life! Sure a $3 cup of coffee tastes good – but I get far more pleasure knowing that money is purchasing an anti-malaria net that might save someone’s life. From the earliest age I have felt strongly about injustice: in school, I often got in trouble for speaking up when teachers were unfair. I knew there were bigger injustices out in the world, but put them out of my mind since I felt powerless to affect them. Now I can actually do something about them!
I’m still in my 20’s, so expect I’ll struggle over some big values-choices in the future: whether to use money to travel or to raise a child… but for now, my choices are clear. I’m fortunate that my parents are supportive -- and downright ecstatic that I recently got together with a woman who shares my passion for giving; despite her tiny student income she gives a portion to charity.
I consider giving as my real career: I’m a professional donor! Although I absolutely love teaching, I may switch to a more lucrative job in the future because my goal is to give as much as possible. Even before I became a giver, I thought it was crazy that so many people hate their jobs yet continue to buy lots of stuff. Why not buy less so you can work less and enjoy life more? The only difference is that I now have a galvanizing use for the money I earn. My goal is to eventually give whatever I earn above an amount I commit to live on –probably $20,000 or less.
When I look at the facts—that today, it is within the power of each of us to cure blindness and prevent disease, at no cost to our appreciation and enjoyment of life—I’m clear the biggest impact I can ever have is through giving and encouraging others to give.