What is the Giving What We Can Pledge?

There has been a lot of ink spilled over the Giving What We Can pledge recently.  I had some strong opinions on this that I wrote up, but in the course of researching I discovered that I literally don’t know what the pledge is, and that is not my fault.

Looking at the last year of posts on EA Forums, there are many posts on the pros and cons of the pledge, not one of which actually quotes it.  It is always summarized as “10% for life” with no elaboration.

Here is the text on https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/pledge :

“I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.”

But here is the the text on https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/join:

I commit to donating % of my income to the most cost-effective organisations.

For any period in which you do not earn an income, e.g. because you are a student, the pledge commits you to instead give at least 1% of your spending money.

And when I or others have asked questions, CEA employees tend to refer to the FAQs.  The FAQs contain enough information not in the pledge that I don’t think that counts as mere clarification.  In particular, whenever someone asks “what if I have a health emergency?”, “what if I take a pay cut to do direct work?” or “what if I’m unemployed?”, they are directed to https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions/#42-how-does-it-work-is-it-legally-binding

How does it work? Is it legally binding?

The Pledge is not a contract and is not legally binding. It is, however, a public declaration of lasting commitment to the cause. It is a promise, or oath, to be made seriously and with every expectation of keeping it. All those who want to become a member of Giving What We Can must make the Pledge and report their income and donations each year.

If someone decides that they can no longer keep the Pledge (for instance due to serious unforeseen circumstances), then they can simply contact us and cease to be a member. They can of course rejoin later if they renew their commitment. Obviously taking the Pledge is something to be considered seriously, but we understand if a member can no longer keep it.

To me, this has always come across as saying the pledge is not a lifelong commitment, it’s “while you feel like it” (which can include “I really want a new XBOX but feel morally obligated to donate instead”).  Which is a perfectly fine thing to do, but I don’t see what’s gained by making a promise to do something while you feel like it.  The “feel like it” takes care of that on its own.  I think my interpretation is quite justified by the version of the pledge that’s usually quoted, and on the join page.  But I think it’s incorrect for the version on the pledge page- “I can live well enough on a smaller income” implies that the pledge no longer holds if that is not true.

But I think there’s a third option here, where people aren’t literally reading the words of either pledge.  They view “taking the pledge” as a ritual signing on to some amorphous thing that includes the word of both, plus the FAQs, plus possibly other sources.

Also note the commitment to reporting your income and donation every year, which is not listed in either /join or /pledge.

This doesn’t get them totally off the hook.  Elsewhere in the FAQs:

What should I think about before pledging?

We believe the Pledge is a good choice for most people reading this, given how comparatively well off those of us in the rich world are – for example, someone earning $25,000 a year is in the richest 5.3% of the world’s population. We also think anyone considering the Pledge should carefully consider how it will interact with other situations in their lives.

Using money to free up time

  • If you can do something very beneficial with your time, it may be better to spend money to save yourself time (by buying a dishwasher instead of hand-washing dishes, taking cabs instead of public transit, etc.) rather than donating it.
  • Consider whether your likely budget would allow you to spend a reasonable amount of time on the things you consider most valuable.

Temporary financial constraints

  • Someone who’s interested in starting a business may need to save up money to cover expenses in the early stages. In this case, the Founders Pledge may be a better fit (because the donation would happen upon a successful exit, rather than year by year).
  • Someone who is currently a student (and thus only committing to donate 1% of their spending money if they pledge) should consider whether they will soon be paying off student loans. Depending on repayment policies in their country, people may find money is tighter after finishing their studies, and it may be a challenging time to give 10%.

Health

People with health situations that require resources, time away from work, uncertainty about future expenses, etc. may not find that a consistent pledge works well for them. Perhaps it makes sense to make a conditional plan: an intention to donate a given percent in years when one’s medical situation is better, and to give less or not at all in harder times.

Investing in future ability to help

In some cases, spending now will let you help more later by increasing your eventual skills or earnings.

  • Saving money in order to afford further study, unpaid internships, and the like may decrease your ability to pledge now but increase your long-run career capital.
  • In addition to the value of your physical and mental health for its own sake, prioritising your health now may also allow you to do more good in the future.

While there are situations like these in which a full Pledge might not be suitable, people from many walks of life have also found it to be a good way to commit to building the kind of world they want to see. Many of us, when realizing how rich we are compared to the world average, have welcomed the Pledge as a tool for giving back and for encouraging others to do the same.

So all those things people bring up as reasons not to sign the pledge?  The FAQs agree with them.  I would feel much better if, when people brought these up, GWWC’s response was “yup, this is not for you.”  It also feels very different to me if it’s expected to be taken by adults with established careers, versus college students still planning their life.

An employee of 80,000 Hours (which is a child organization of Centre for Effective Altruism, the organization that promotes the GWWC pledge)

For me it’s a statement of my ideals, which I expect to be quite stable. But it’s not a commitment that forces me to act against my better judgement at any future time. Nor would I want it to have that effect on others.

I found him generally uncooperative in that thread, using words like “That’s the only sensible way to act”, “plainly dominates”, “obviously”,  and implying that a more literal interpretation of the pledge was autistic .  He has since apologized for the implied ableism and stated he was attempting to understand other people’s viewpoints.  I think as a CEA employee he should choose his words better, but these are exactly the kind misunderstandings that can come from people speaking off the cuff.

[Author’s note: I gave the post author the opportunity to respond to this description before publishing, he directed me towards that comment.  I would not have found it otherwise.]

There’s considerable disagreement over what 10% even means.  Gross pay?  Net pay after taxes and health insurance?  What if your country has a high tax rate?  Can you count some of your taxes as charitable giving?  How do you count job benefits?  What if your country has a generous welfare program?   What about money you put in retirement savings? The answer I’ve seen has always been “whatever makes sense for you”, which I consider tantamount to picking your own number.

In general  I think there’s a lot of disagreement over the purpose of the pledge, and whether it’s an instrumental or terminal goal.  I mean obviously it’s not a terminal goal, the terminal goal is…. well, it used to be that the goal was to end poverty, but now that it describes giving to any charity you consider the best, not just anti-global-poverty, I’m not sure I know what the terminal goal is.  It’s “do good”, but it only covers one way to do good.  Which is one of my problems with it- reinforcing the narratives that money is the only thing that counts, and that the good you do is measured by what you give up.

I’ve heard multiple people describe it as creating a culture of giving and openings for them to talk to people about giving.  You can’t really take a pledge to do that directly.  But if people are signing for that purpose and don’t consider themselves bound to actually donate 10%, that feels dishonest to me.  At that point the pledge is something more like “We agree that bad things are bad and we are going to do something about them.”- which I think is a perfectly good pledge, but a substantially different one.

One close friend of mine thinks that there is intrinsic good in suffering to make donations, even if the donations aren’t very large, because it’s a reminder that you’re still unimaginably wealthy to the bottom billion.  I… see the beauty in that if it’s done voluntarily.  I also see beauty and also a lot of practical value in finding something so valuable to do with your time and talent that taking care of yourself becomes virtuous.  Looking at our families of origin: my dad really could have used a nice cup of tea and the message that being a good person is compatible with stopping to take care of yourself sometimes.  My friend’s dad could have used a thwack with a ruler and the message that being in the bottom third of income in the richest county in the country is not the same as being poor.  So it’s possible we’re fighting different wars.

I think everyone agrees that it would be good for people to plan around giving, rather than doing it as an afterthought.  10% barely does that for me and other programmers, because we’re paid so much already.  I have had my income double and then halve over the course of three years.  Meanwhile I have friends for whom 10% is either an unimaginable burden, or for whom it’s plausible at the moment, but they not only have no safety net but are the safety net for several other people, and they need a larger cushion.  I worry that anchoring at 10% will lead to less giving while increasing suffering among donors.  And my friend that mocks the whole concept of charity?  Still not giving anything.

My friend would say that obviously the programmers should give more than 10%.  Which is correct, but I think it’s extremely debatable whether or not that’s accomplished by the pledge.  For people using it as a treatment for scrupulosity, the whole point is that there’s one number.  I find it plausible that “10% for life” is a better way to get people to integrate than “I will think super hard about this every year.”  It’s even possible that it does this without dipping into the commons of the words “for life”, which would address my biggest objection.  But then the objection to “but what if circumstances preclude this for me?” should be “don’t sign it” (which is what the FAQs say, but is not the messaging I’ve seen anywhere else).

An interpretation I find satisfying is that taking The Pledge is like giving an asset to the world.  If at any point you and the world mutually agree to change the arrangement (e.g. receiving less money in exchange for you doing direct work, or a smaller percentage now in exchange for more total money later), you can make that trade. This is complicated by the fact that the world is not a negotiating entity so this probably boils down to your own judgement, which is notoriously biased in favor of you. I see a purpose of a pledge as binding yourself against changes in your judgement.  It prevents you from lying to yourself that you getting takeout is good for the world, at the cost of not getting takeout even when it’s good for the world.

In all seriousness: I wonder how much of the benefits of the pledge you could get by making it solely a commitment to report income and donations every year, with optional shorter term goal setting.  So essentially Try Giving, but with a lifelong commitment to report donations.  Food diaries improve diet without conscious rules.  Spending diaries improve saving without conscious rules.   This could easily generate all the benefits of making people incorporate giving into their planning, is a strictly better conversation starter (since you have a new thing to discuss every year), and has the universality of the pledge with much more flexibility.  In fact you might not even need the “lifelong” part, just a commitment to write up why you are leaving, if you choose to do so.

What do people think about this alternate pledge?  Is there something I’m missing?  A further improvement?

[Author’s note: I ran a much earlier version of this by Julia Wise at CEA]

6 thoughts on “What is the Giving What We Can Pledge?

  1. Personally, I don’t find the alternate pledge nearly as compelling. I feel like a public commitment for a minimum donation amount is much more effective for fundraising than a commitment to report what you’re donating. In my experience, at a church call to donation, or a gofundme for a co-worker’s sick kid, can be very effective if a few people stand up early and publicly pledge some amount. Much more so than if they discuss their general agreement on the goal but leave the donation part in private. I’d guess that the mechanism is, upon seeing someone very similar to you willing to donate, you become much more willing to donate a similar amount, as this is now a publicly validated choice in your community.

    For me, the GWWC pledge functions in much the same way. I can stand up among a bunch of my peers who share my beliefs about helping others, and commit to join them in doing something substantial to contribute. I think it’s fairly obvious that the 10% number is arbitrary, but it also has some historical basis and it likely works well across the income spectrum for the majority of the population who are currently interested in effective altruism.

    I agree that it doesn’t generalize very well, and agree with you that it’s somewhat problematic for college students, who haven’t yet started their careers. But I feel like a more generalizable version would always be trading off against effectiveness as a fundraising tool.

    In fact, I’d suggest moving the opposite direction. I don’t think all of EA needs to take the same pledge. I think the GWWC pledge works well for 80-90% of the current group (First world professionals making from $30k-$300k*), other groups should probably have different, better targeted pledges. I think there’s been some success from this direction already, I know of: The founder’s pledge for people building startups, Try Giving is probably more appropriate for students, and I believe there is one for professional poker players as well. If we could effectively reach out to older people, I could imagine one for estate planning making a lot of sense. I think you run into some issues with fixed costs for organizing, and splitting the population up, but I already think EA is a bit of a diaspora of different groups and approaches that focuses on a few common goals.

    *All my stats here are just based on my own rough intuition. It’s unlikely that they’re very accurate, please correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. Thanks. I do think a lot of problems with the pledge stem from an attempt to be universal, and removing that goal is one possible solution.

      Do you think 10% is actually the right number for people making $300,000/year? That is exactly the group I’m worried will give less than the otherwise would or should, given an anchor at 10%.

      1. Thanks for your response. If I personally had an income that high, I would certainly attempt to donate more than 10%, but I think this is kind of a competing needs situation. You or I might be perfectly okay with the argument that given the diminishing marginal utility of extra income, and no or very little diminishing returns on donations of that size, then someone making $300k per year should donate 50% or more of their income. For me personally, given my hobbies and obligations that seems perfectly reasonable but for others that might be almost inconceivable.

        Given hedonic adaptation, I’d argue that committing to a 10% donation to charity is going to feel roughly as difficult for someone currently making $200-$300k a year as it does for someone making $40-$60k. Especially considering lifestyle factors, the modal higher earner is probably much later in life, and likely to already have substantial long-term financial commitments (mortgage, children’s school tuition, etc.). So if you want to potentially bring in existing high earners, there may be value in pushing just one number for everyone, or at least everyone you think is a reasonable prospect.

        Regarding anchoring, I’m sympathetic to your argument. Personally, I hope the pledge has the opposite effect on me. By meeting or exceeding the pledged 10% donation, I’m building on the virtue/skill of giving charitably, and if my career takes off in the future, I will be able to easily donate substantially more than 10%. But who knows, it could end up as an anchoring point, or as a rationalization for not doing more.

  2. I’m nearly done editing a post trying to clear up some of the questions people have about the pledge, and this added a few new ones to address, so that’s good. We’re also planning to make a more prominent page spelling out how the Pledge works so that people will be more likely to read it. And we should also standardize how we describe this stuff in different places; thanks for pointing out some of the discrepancies. Sorry we didn’t make all this clearer before.

    – About “what if I don’t feel like keeping the pledge”: “I really want a new XBOX” is absolutely not what we mean by “serious unforeseen circumstances.” I’ll try to make this clearer in my post and our website.

    You and I talked earlier about “Since I can live well enough on a smaller income”, but I didn’t fully understand how broad the gap was between your understanding and mine. GWWC does not intend it to mean that people should feel free to cancel their pledge whenever they no longer feel like they’re keeping up with the Joneses. I’m trying to think of how I could test out what people typically think that clause means – if you’d like, I’d welcome your help in figuring out how to test this.

    – About income: it’s not just “whatever makes sense for you,” and I’m sorry if anyone in an official capacity indicated that. At the risk of annoying people by referring to the FAQ again: https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions/#44-what-do-you-mean-by-income
    “By income, we mean your gross salary or wages, prior to income tax being deducted. This does not include money gained through other activities, such as investment income. However, if you wish to donate a proportion of this in addition to 10% of your salary then you are of course welcome to.

    So if you earn $30,000 a year before tax, you would be required to give at least $3,000. Depending on your country and choice of charity, your donation may be tax deductible, making the real cost of giving 10% less than it first appears.”

    That said, we’re discussing adding the option to take the percentage of post-tax income, out of consideration for people who don’t get any tax benefit from donations.

    – About the proposed lifetime-Try Giving: in practice, when you do Try Giving we email you at the end of your specified time period to ask if you want to renew or if you want to take the full Pledge. Would what you’re proposing basically be that, but you commit to getting yearly emails forever? And if you don’t answer, we send you more emails? That level of commitment doesn’t seem all that different from the current version. Might work better if it were set up more like Beeminder where you lose something if you fail to do your annual checkin?

    – I’m going to start saying this a lot more often: if anyone has questions about how the Pledge works, either in general or for their particular circumstances, please talk to us at community@givingwhatwecan.org, or you can reach me at julia@centreforeffectivealtruism.org.

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