This Month I’d Have Finished Paying Off My Student Loans — If I Hadn’t Donated Half of My “Repayments” So Far to Charity
As I was finishing my MBA I argued that likely the best opportunity my classmates and I had for making a positive difference in the world was to give away a relatively small portion of our incomes to highly effective charities that help the world’s poorest people. In that piece, I outlined the pledge my wife and I had made to give about 10% of our income to charities that do just that. Now, about two years later I want to share my experience of trying to live out that argument in practice.
The catalyst for this reflection was a simple milestone. This month, the total amount that my wife and I have given to charity since we made that pledge passed the total amount still outstanding on my student loans. In other words, had we not taken that pledge, today those loans could be cleared.
So, how do I feel? Do I regret the choice we made?
Well, let’s outline that choice. On one hand, we’d be carrying less debt, and would have saved some interest we’ll pay in coming years on the outstanding balance. Debt free, we’d have more income to direct toward other savings or lifestyle goals.
On the other hand, by my rough estimate^, some of the impacts of our donations include:
- Providing about 12,000 anti-malarial bednets that will protect about 18,000 people from malaria for a few years each, which research suggests will save about 10 lives that otherwise would’ve been lost to the disease, via the Against Malaria Foundation.
- Providing direct, unconditional cash transfers equal to about one to two years income to about 10 households of on average 5 people Kenya and/or Uganda via GiveDirectly
- Providing about 10,000 children with de-worming treatments that reduce their risk of disease, and improve school attendance and lifetime income via the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative
- Funding the development of emerging Effective Altruism ‘meta charities’ like One for the World and The Life You Can Save.
On a backward-looking basis, is there anyone that wouldn’t take this trade? It’s hard to value human life in the abstract. But do I think 10+ lives saved from malaria is worth what we’ve given? How could I not? With these kinds of opportunities for positive impact in the world available, it makes me more convinced that what we’re giving should be a floor, not a ceiling.
And if you’d take the trade in retrospect, why not take it on a forward-looking basis? Incremental donations to organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation are funnelled extremely efficiently into disbursements of life-saving bednets (they even give you a tracking number to track the specific nets you fund). This means even a small gifts are incrementally and immediately helpful.
While I am proud to reflect on the positive impact we have had, I don’t intend to argue we’ve made some grand and noble sacrifice. Instead I want to emphasize how possible and mundane the sacrifices required to have a really positive impact on the world can be.
While I have unending admiration for the many effective altruists who live very frugal lives and funnel large portions of their income and/or time and energy into these causes, I don’t claim to be one of them. That, almost, is the point. There is a vast, fertile middle ground between doing very little and making huge life-altering sacrifices. For instance, an MBA graduate who chooses to forgo one or two nights a month of dinner and drinks out could, over a year, provide 500+ bednets, protecting about 1,000 people from malaria.
I’d urge you to consider making a start today. Give a little to a highly effective, proven charity like the Against Malaria Foundation. Compare your impact to what you’ve given up, and if you feel it was a good trade, give a little more, and keep going. Consider making a public pledge of your intentions, to build accountability and help raise the profile of these opportunities for impact while providing social proof for others.
A good example of this is One for the World, a pledge by young professionals to give at least one per cent of their income to highly effective charities that help the world’s poorest people (the Against Malaria Foundation is their largest beneficiary). In the four years since its founding at Wharton, over 600 students and young professionals from schools like Wharton, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Villanova, and Georgetown have made this pledge, and have given over $200k to date. (Disclosure: I founded the Harvard chapter and am a member of the advisory board). These kind of movements not only give donors a network of similarly motivated people, but help build the kind of mass awareness of effective charitable giving that is needed to create lasting, global impact.
^ For these estimates I used the impact calculator provided by The Life You Can Save here. The estimates are approximate, but the calculations are based on peer reviewed randomized controlled trials on the efficacy of the individual interventions. The best place to read more about these charities and impact estimates is GiveWell.org.