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%.
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]