Nick Beckstead and Mark Lee
March 24th, 2011
Nick Beckstead and Mark Lee
March 24th, 2011
We are deeply committed to giving significantly, and to helping others experience the joy and power of effective giving. Currently, we’re getting our PhD’s in philosophy at Rutgers University. Graduate students aren’t exactly rolling in money, but we easily give at least 10% of our stipends (of around $30,000). After we graduate and start our careers, we’ve pledged to give half of our incomes, for the rest of our working lives, to help alleviate global poverty.
You might be skeptical about us making such a long-term promise. This is understandable, but we’re convinced that most people in our country can comfortably give far more than they imagine. If you earn $45,000 a year and give 10% to effective organizations fighting global poverty, you’d still be among the top 1% of the world’s wage-earners. You’d also save 10 lives every year. If 99% of the world can get by on less, we probably can too.
We weren't always concerned about seemingly abstract things like world poverty and philanthropy. We grew up comfortably in middle-class suburban households, never wanting for anything. We spent our days playing with friends and video games; having fun, living carefree. We never quite realized how lucky we were. It was only after we became exposed to the work of philosopher Peter Singer (Princeton University) that we became vividly aware of the plight of the distant poor, and of the incredible power that ordinary people have to drastically improve their lives. We started to explore together what we personally could do about global poverty, which led us to launch the Rutgers chapter of Giving What We Can.
Giving What We Can is an international movement promoting effective philanthropy that launched in November 2009 by philosophy professor Dr. Toby Ord at Oxford University. On our website, people publicly pledge to give at least 10% of their incomes to most effectively combat global poverty. We conduct and share extensive research on the cost-effectiveness of various organizations, and recommend the very best (without taking any donations ourselves). Though our organization is only a year old, already over 80 people from 9 countries have together pledged more than $25 million dollars (over time) towards alleviating extreme poverty. By “normal” standards we are not wealthy, but we give where our dollars go farthest.
Indeed, part of Giving What We Can’s work is to help people ask themselves tough questions about the organizations they support, such as “What exactly is the measurable impact? How can I get the most bang for my charitable buck?” In the realm of personal finance and investment, we apply great care and scrutiny to make sure we are getting the results we want. Yet in the realm of philanthropy, this type of rigorous analysis is often unfamiliar to givers who are used to simply funding the Red Cross or their alma mater or church. That’s OK – we want people to get out of their comfort zone. We think people who give truly want their giving to count, and we aim to help them increase the impact of their generosity. The additional impact can be huge. For example, it costs about $50,000 to train a seeing eye dog in the United States. In contrast, the Fred Hollows Foundation can cure a person of blindness for a mere $50—the difference is a factor of a thousand. It pays to give well.
Why global poverty? Doesn’t charity begin at home? We believe the point of giving is to help others. If we care about results, it makes sense to determine how our giving can have the best results. Our research, and that of charity-evaluator GiveWell, shows that our dollars happen to go farther overseas – not because people in the developing world are more important, of course, but rather because they are dying from illnesses that are easily and cheaply treatable or preventable. In the US, children die of medically complex diseases like cancer. Children in poor countries all too commonly die of diarrhea and diseases with simple, known cures. Because even modest giving can mean the difference between life and death for so many, we have pledged to do our part. We cannot see anything more worth doing.
In a way, the pledge we’ve made through Giving What We Can is an easy one to make because we are committing money that we have never learned to depend on. Both of us have always been frugal and enjoyed simple pleasures. Nick spends his time with his girlfriend, hiking, reading, and discussing philosophy; Mark likes to watch movies, play video games, and put his ethical values into practice. Our lives already feel rich at this level. Instead of allowing our personal spending to unnecessarily inflate as we age, our pledge will help us keep our lives uncluttered and to maintain giving as a fundamental part of our lives.
That’s what makes Giving What We Can such a brilliant strategy. Anyone can sign, but because we’re spreading through universities, many signers are currently students. We’ve been contacted by people interested in starting chapters at Princeton and Harvard-- just think of the earning capacity of those graduates over their lifetimes! By reaching young professionals while they’re living modest student lifestyles, and creating a peer group for long-term mutual support, our members can have enormous impact while living the lives they want. This is the kind of giving we want to inspire.
| Northeast | 40 to 59 Years Old | Under $1M | at least 50% | Profession | Joy |
Posted on April 4th by Molly Stranahan
Mark, I totally endorse your hope, and appreciate the ongoing dialogue.
Anne, I really enjoyed reading the stories you steered us toward, thank you for making those connections.
Bolder Giving is a great place to go for inspiration and thoughtful 'conversation'!
Posted on April 4th by Mark
You are right - I would be myopic to just take my paycheck and subsequent donations as a measure of my impact. (Corporate litigation is perhaps an area that risks causing harm, and I'm inclined towards safer sub-fields.) I must remain alert to the broader consequences of my philanthropic pursuits. My aim is to help others as much as I can, and giving is just one dimension to consider.
Another is inspiration. You raise the important point that impact extends beyond individual contribution. Indeed, my 50-90% giving (depending on how much I earn - I won't adjust my standard of living up whenever I get a raise) will be relatively insignificant if I inspire others to give boldly. Perhaps your own resonating story and generosity strategy have had positive effects surpassing even that of your very significant giving.
I hope that by sharing our stories and messages, we can all contribute to promoting a culture of compassion and beneficence.
Posted on April 4th by Anne Ellinger
Posted on April 3rd by Molly Stranahan
Mark, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I certainly know many lawyers who are not fulfilling their hopes and ideals for improving the world, whether they were originally drawn to use the law to help the underserved, or to change laws to better achieve the future they want to see. The field would certainly be served by someone who hangs onto his or her ideals and finds ways to live them while earning an impressive salary.
I am, however, reminded of the dilemma of foundations and individuals who ignore the impact of the companies their funds are invested in, saying that they just want to maximize their returns so that they can maximize their giving. Sometimes they earn their money by investing in a company whose practices are exacerbating the very problems they are trying to ameliorate with their giving.
I think of a good-hearted friend who wound up working at a law firm in Washington that lobbies Congress on behalf of big corporations (tobacco companies and companies wanting to gain ownership of water rights). Her work was directly opposed to her values. While she ultimately left that job, she has not been able to find work as a lawyer that uses her time to express her values AND supports her financially.
I think it is important to think about how we trade our life energy (including our time and skills) for money. I hope that if you work as an attorney, you will be as happy and fulfilled as a person as you would be as a philosophy professor.
Personally, and this is as a person who has been able to give away several hundred thousand dollars, and who has been involved in foundations that have given away millions of dollars, I think how we live our lives is what is most important. I believe making our everyday life choices in alignment with the values that are most important to us is the most impactful thing we can do to make the world a better place. And of course that means giving money to alleviate suffering.
Don't underestimate the impact your presence through Bolder Giving has had on others. (By the way, I am more impressed by you and Nick giving 10% of your current earnings as graduate students than by the pledge of 50% of future earnings.) As thoughtful spokespersons for Giving What We Can you are having a lot of influence, it just won't be very measurable to you.
Thank you, Mark and Nick, for being the thoughtful, inspiring people you are.
Posted on March 31st by Mark
Thank you, Molly. Indeed, my desire to make a difference motivated me to switch career paths, and I agree, it may not be obvious how law better satisfies this desire than philosophy. After all, teaching philosophy courses to students - helping them to think critically and independently - can have immense value, and teaching ethics courses in particular can help students think about how to live well and rightly. The ripples of this influence may extend far. In fact, my own giving was influenced by the philosopher Peter Singer.
But there are also considerations in favor of a career in law. I'll just mention two here, to keep my post short-ish, but I'm happy to discuss others.
There is first of all the greater ability to donate that a law career affords - the starting salary at top firms roughly doubles the peak salary of most professors. Given the awesome power of effective giving to transform lives, this is no negligible factor.
There's the example of the highly-paid individual who volunteers at the homeless shelter / soup kitchen / etc. each weekend, but who could have done even more good by instead working just a few hours more at her regular job and donating the proceeds to the shelter (or [name favorite charity here]). There is nothing wrong with her working at the shelter - indeed it is highly laudable, may be more heart-warming and rewarding than writing a check (being able to directly help and see the people helped), and in any case does not exclude donating. Also, people sometimes have negative associations with writing checks, thinking it impersonal and amounting to 'throwing money at problems'. Nonetheless, considering for the moment just the helping of the homeless (which is her primary motivation), writing the check can have a much larger impact, and that's one strong consideration in its favor. I think this is an important insight, and I've chosen to make earning and giving a more central part of my strategy for helping others. Many people think of cutting back on expenditures to have more to give, but fewer think of earning more to have more to give; I think both are good ideas.
Second, setting an example in law as a professional donor can inspire others - there are few well-known precedents for my path. In addition to being around more affluent colleagues to share my passion for giving with, there's the fact that a lot of young people enter law school with high hopes and ideals, and really want to make a difference, but somewhat lose sight of that as the rat race continues. It would be great to have a group of like-minded friends continuing to support each other in keeping that flame alive. This is the motivation behind the openness and publicity of Giving What We Can - setting an example, showing that giving significantly and effectively can be done, and supporting each other at every step.
Hope that clarifies things somewhat.
Posted on March 25th by Molly Stranahan
Thank you, Nick, Mark and Anne, for your inspirational call yesterday.
Mark, I believe you said you have decided to leave your program in philosophy to go to law school (congratulations on being accepted at Harvard!). I think you said that a desire to make a difference is part of what motivated this decision, but as I was telling my husband about the call, I realized I don't understand what made you choose law. Do you have an idea of how a law degree will help you achieve your life goals?