Difference between revisions of "Earning to give"

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Initial article cross-posted from Wikipedia.

Earning to give is a possible form of effective altruism aimed at making the most positive impact on the world.[1][2][3][4]Earning to give has a historical precedent in tithing (a system whereby people donate a certain fixed percentage of their income to charity) but goes beyond tithing in the following important respect: while tithing simply means that people give a fraction of their earnings to charity, advocates of "earning to give" sometimes suggest that maximizing the amount one can donate to charity is an important consideration for individuals when deciding what career to pursue. For instance, it may lead people to choose for altruistic purposes a career such as finance where they are particularly suited at making larger sums of money so that they can donate more to charity, even if that particular career interests them somewhat less. The 80,000 Hours website makes it clear that earning to give is only one of many possible ways of engaging in effective altruism, and some individuals may be better suited to taking up a job primarily for its direct impact, whether at a for-profit or a non-profit.


Earning to give has been proposed by many people interested in ethics and altruism, and it is unclear who first described it.[3][5] The main idea was described in the 1996 book Living High and Letting Die by Peter Unger, where he wrote that it was morally praiseworthy and perhaps even morally required for people in academia who could earn substantially greater salaries in the business world to leave academia, earn the greater salaries, and donate most of the extra money to charity.[5]Brian Tomasik writes that he started thinking about replaceability in December 2004 and independently came up with the ideas underlying earning to give (inspired by the writing of Vegan Outreach cofounder Jack Norris) but believes that many others also came up with the idea; Kaufman believes that Tomasik was the first to publicly write up the idea.[3][5][6]

The name "earning to give" appears to have been proposed by Tomasik in a mailing list discussion in response to a blog post by Jeff Kaufman asking for a good name for the idea to replace "professional philanthropy" -- the name originally used by 80,000 Hours.[5][7]


Earning potential and replaceability

A stylized argument in favor of earning to give considers two options:[1][2][3][8]

  • Work at a nonprofit for $30,000 a year to directly have positive social impact, or
  • Work in finance to earn $100,000 a year, keep $40,000 for personal expenses, and donate the remaining $60,000 to the most efficient charity you are aware of.[3]

Proponents of earning to give argue that the second option would allow the nonprofit to hire two people instead of just getting the services of one person, or make other effective expenditures.

One key consideration here is the difference in earning potential between the best non-profit job available and the high-earning option available. For some people who are naturally suited to making money in finance or other lucrative careers, the difference in earning potential can be very high, and the case for earning to give is strong.

Another consideration is replaceability in the non-profit job one is looking at. The better a person is at the non-profit job compared to the counterfactual replacement if the person went into finance, and the higher the direct impact of that job, the stronger the case against choosing the "earning to give" option.

The perspective of comparative advantage

The choice of whether or not to engage in earning to give can be viewed from the perspective of comparative advantage: one must do the job where one's differential with respect to counterfactual replacements is maximum. Thus, even if a person is better both at non-profit work and at working in high-paying jobs relative to others in similar jobs, comparative advantage can be used to determine whether directly working at a non-profit (or in a for-profit job that has direct social impact) is better or worse than earning to give.

Sensitivity to beliefs about the cost-effectiveness of charities

With donations, it is possible to choose to donate to the best or most cost-effective charity (e.g., in the sense of having a low cost-per-life-saved if the charity works to save lives, as Against Malaria Foundation does), whereas the options for charities that one may be able to directly work at may be more limited, and it may not be possible to work at the most cost-effective charity. Thus, the more cost-effective one believes the best charities to be (relative to the cost-effectiveness of charities one may be able to work at) the stronger the case for earning to give.


In February 2013, William MacAskill (formerly Will Crouch) wrote an article for Quartz arguing for earning to give as one of many alternatives for effective altruists to consider, with a particular focus on finance as a possible "earning to give" career.[9] MacAskill made three arguments in favor of earning to give: (i) high variance between cost-effectiveness in charities (as discussed above) made earning to give to the best charities a more attractive option than working at a typical nonprofit, (ii) salaries in finance are considerably higher than salaries in other areas, (iii) most jobs at non-profits have a high degree of replacability (discussed above).

In April 2013, Ben Kuhn wrote a blog post giving reasons for downgrading his assessment of "earning to give" as optimal philanthropy.[10] Kuhn cited a recent blog post by GiveWell suggesting that most of the promising interventions had already been funded by large donors.[11] as well as GiveWell's self-evaluation[12] and other evidence suggesting that non-profits had trouble recruiting quality personnel.

A blog post by Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post about earning to give was published in May 2013.[13] This post profiled some individuals, such as Google engineer Jeff Kaufman and his wife Julia Wise, and financier Jason Trigg, who had chosen the "earning to give" path. In response, Joe Carter argued on the Acton Institute blog that people who chose the path of "earning to give" were bivocational: they were doing good both in terms of the value they generated through the work that led them to earn money, and in the value they generated by giving away part of that wealth. Carter stressed that one should not downplay the first form of value creation in order to glorify the latter.[14] David Brooks made similar criticisms in his New York Times opinion column.[15] Brooks argued that, while altruists may start doing "earning to give" to realize their deepest commitments, their values may erode over time, becoming progressively less altruistic. In addition, Brooks objected to the view on which altruists should turn themselves "into a machine for the redistribution of wealth." Independently, Ben Kuhn wrote a blog post discussing and addressing some of the objections raised in the comments on the Washington Postblog post.[16] Reihan Salam also defended earning to give against criticisms from Dana Goldstein and laid out some relevant considerations that complicated the analysis.[17]

In June 2013, in a blog post for LessWrong, Jonah Sinick, a former GiveWell analyst, outlined a number of considerations that weighed against "earning to give" being a good strategy for the kind of people it was being marketed to.[18] Sinick's main reasons included (i) the direction of past estimates by GiveWell about the cost-effectiveness of charities pointing to pessimism, with the current estimate being that a life could be saved for $2300 by Against Malaria Foundation, the top-ranked charity, (ii) the relative paucity of people with high earnings in finance or similar lucrative careers, and the high likelihood that such people, unless specifically suited to that specific lucrative career, would also have strong transferrable skills that could be used to directly do good in for-profit or non-profit jobs, and (iii) a belief that very high value humanitarian efforts require highly skilled and highly motivated laborers, suggesting a lower degree of replacability, thereby making direct work in high impact work relatively more attractive for skilled and motivated individuals compared to earning to give. 80,000 Hours published a blog post in response.[19]

In late June 2013, GiveWell published a blog post about earning to give.[20]

Some effective altruists, such as MacAskill and Benjamin Todd, have responded to the argument that high-paying careers such as finance involve a lot of unethical behavior by arguing that the probability of engaging in unethical behavior that one's counterfactual replacements would not have engaged in is low, whereas the marginal impact of donations is high.[21][8]

A number of other blog posts on replaceability have informed the discussion on earning to give.[22][23] There also exist many online summaries of the existing state of the discussion.[24][25]

Media coverage

The earning to give strategy has been discussed in a number of news and media outlets including BBC News,[26]Quartz,[9]the Washington Post,[13] the New York Times,[15] and Aeon Magazine.[27]

See also

  • Effective altruism
  • High impact philanthropy
  • Room for more funding


  1. ^ Jump up to:a b "Earning to give". 80,000 Hours. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b Hurford, Peter (2013-06-26). "What is earning to give?". Centre for Effective Altruism. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  3. ^ Jump up to:a b c d e Tomasik, Brian (2006 (updated March 3, 2014)). "Why Activists Should Consider Making Lots of Money". RetrievedMarch 18, 2014. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. Jump up^ Crouch, Will (2011-11-22). "Banking as an ethical career". Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  5. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Kaufman, Jeff (September 18, 2012). "History of "Earning to Give"". Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  6. Jump up^ Tomasik, Brian (September 20, 2007). "Making Money and Making Change Not Mutually Exclusive". The Phoenix(Swarthmore College student newspaper). Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  7. Jump up^ Kaufman, Jeff (August 15, 2012). "Professional Philanthropy". Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  8. ^ Jump up to:a b MacAskill, William (April 2014). "Replaceability, career choice, and making a difference". Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17(2): 269–283. doi:10.1007/s10677-013-9433-4.
  9. ^ Jump up to:a b MacAskill, William (2013-02-27). "To save the world, don’t get a job at a charity; go work on Wall Street". Quartz. Retrieved2013-07-04.
  10. Jump up^ Kuhn, Ben (2013-04-05). "Downgrading confidence in earning to give". Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  11. Jump up^ Karnofsky, Holden (2013-03-21). "Trying (and failing) to find more funding gaps for delivering proven cost-effective interventions". GiveWell. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  12. Jump up^ "Self-evaluation: GiveWell as a project". GiveWell. 2012-02-16. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  13. ^ Jump up to:a b Matthews, Dylan (2013-05-31). "Join Wall Street. Save the world.". Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  14. Jump up^ Carter, Joe (2013-06-06). "The Vocation of Earning-to-Give Donor". Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  15. ^ Jump up to:a b Brooks, David (2013-06-03). "The Way to Produce a Person". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-10-16.
  16. Jump up^ Kuhn, Ben (2013-06-01). "Common objections to earning to give". Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  17. Jump up^ Salam, Reihan (May 31, 2013). "The Rise of the Singerians". National Review. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
  18. Jump up^ Sinick, Jonah (2013-06-02). "Earning to Give vs. Altruistic Career Choice Revisited". LessWrong. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  19. Jump up^ Todd, Benjamin (2013-06-10). "Why Earning to Give is often not the best option". 80,000 Hours. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  20. Jump up^ Karnofsky, Holden (2013-06-26). "Our take on "earning to give"". Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  21. Jump up^ Todd, Benjamin. Which ethical careers make a difference? (Master's thesis).
  22. Jump up^ Christiano, Paul (January 22, 2013). "Replaceability". Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  23. Jump up^ Kuhn, Ben (January 15, 2014). "Replaceability arguments are overblown". Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  24. Jump up^ Hurford, Peter (June 26, 2013). "What Is earning to give?". Effective Altruism blog. Retrieved March 21, 2014.
  25. Jump up^ Stafforini, Pablo. "Earning to give: an annotated bibliography". Retrieved March 21, 2014.
  26. Jump up^ Coughlan, Sean (2011-11-21). "Banking 'can be an ethical career choice'". BBC News. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
  27. Jump up^ Southan, Rhys (March 20, 2014). "Is it OK to make art? If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you’re probably not making the world a better place". Aeon Magazine. Retrieved March 21, 2014.