Donating to charity

This post describes my own personal experiences and might only be relevant to people with similarly comfortable incomes. They’re arguably the ones who need this conversation more, since poor people tend to donate more of their income.

I started regularly donating money to charity after I graduated from college and started my first full-time job. I was raised to be mindful of the opportunities I had received and the role that luck played in my life. It felt obvious that I should share what I had with others. I looked for registered nonprofits that supported causes I felt personally invested in, wrote them paper checks, then gathered up my receipts to deduct them from my taxes.

It was very easy for me to get started back then because I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other people and paying recession-era rents. Even after saving for retirement, I had plenty of discretionary income, so it was just a matter of setting a donation goal and tracking whether or not I reached it. I decided to try to maximize my company match: if they matched $500, I would donate $500. I didn’t meet my goal every year, but I liked this approach as a way to check in with myself every December. Having a concrete number helped me decide whether I had really done what I set out to do.

When I changed jobs and my new employer no longer offered matching funds, I looked for alternative models. I am an ardent atheist, but I liked some of the things I read about tithing. It seemed similar enough to the corporate model of giving away 1% of profits, and it had the advantage of scaling up with my income. The problem with donating a flat amount was that the tech industry and my own career were both growing, so continuing to donate only $500 would be an increasingly stingy move.

In the past two years, I’ve been comfortably meeting my donation goals, both in company match utilization and in percentage of my income. I’ve been reading about other people’s donation philosophies to inform my thinking. Here are a few sources I’ve found helpful:

Here’s what I’m considering for 2018 and beyond: allocate the entirety of my N% charity budget to statistically effective things like GiveWell, then donate another large chunk of money to things that are a more direct expression of my values. For example, I believe that forced birth policies are a violation of people’s right to control their own bodies. It’s against my morals to impose arbitrary waiting periods and unnecessary exams just to create financial barriers to abortion. One way I can act on this is to give money directly to pregnant people who cannot afford abortions. I could also donate to a group that does education and outreach to connect people with the healthcare they need, or donate to a politician who’s committed to defend these rights.

I haven’t figured out the details, and I’m especially unsure how much I should allocate to each type of giving. Should I keep giving N% and find another N%, doubling the amount I’m giving away to others? Should more of my dollars be dedicated to efficiency or to my personal values? Does it matter whether all of it is tax deductible, or should I allocate more to lobbying and direct aid? Either way, I’ll need to check in with myself at the end of the year to see if it’s gone well.

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