The GiveWell Blog

Limits of generosity

So, I gave around $9000 ($5000-$6000 actual cost, factoring in taxes) to charity this year. Was it enough? I’ll be the first to admit that wasn’t all I could afford to give. It was as much as I wanted to.

And you know what else I’ll admit? Earlier in the year, when the baseball playoffs came around, I went to four games, spending a total of $400 on tickets alone. According to me, that means I let two children die of malaria so I could watch the Yankees lose in person. Those of you of certain philosophical persuasions could even say I killed two children. Adjusting for taxes, I killed three.

It’s an unnerving thought. But if I wrote that I’m losing sleep over it, I’d be lying. I’m not. I spend more time than most people thinking about the horrible problems in the world, but in an hour and a half what I’m going to be thinking about is how awesome it is when 300-pound men injure each other for my entertainment. And even when I am thinking about the horrible problems in the world, I generally don’t feel that terrible or sad and I definitely don’t cry (which some people consider to be the ultimate sign of an effective charity agent). Honestly, the main feeling I have is excitement that I can do something about them.

If you think that makes me a terrible person, and you’re either (a) giving away every penny you have or (b) staying up all night to jam needles into your eye because you feel so bad, well, cool. If you’re one of the remaining 99.99999% of people who values yourself way above others, I imagine that what I’m saying rings true.

I want to help others, but I have no interest in being a saint or Zell Kravinsky. I’ve got some disposable income, and I spend it on things that feel worth it. Improving the world is one of those things. Others include baseball, beer, and steak dinners. I wouldn’t fault you for doing the same. Just remember: you don’t have to give away everything to give away a lot.


  • Bob Elliott (Givewell Reviewer MichiganBob) on January 7, 2007 at 12:20 pm said:

    One question on my mind is how to think about the trade off between giving today and giving in the future. For instance, my giving this year was far more than I have ever given in any previous year (mostly because I actually had an income for the first time in my life), and it was mainly focused on Global Justice, an orgnization working on global health advocacy ( Throughout the year, that amounted to about 1000 bucks. Then I tacked on my Nothing But Nets contribution (see for my review, and information, of about $250, and then to some smaller charities. Lets say in total about 2000 bucks in sum. Probably smaller than holden in a % of total income perspective. But why didn’t I give more? While I did go to a couple of baseball games, and cheered on my tigers from the $5 seats, conspicuous consumption wasn’t the main driving force limiting my giving. Truth is, I wanted to save money. Plain and simple. I still have the goal to give, and give substantially, but if I save today, wont I have more to give in the future? Isnt the world better off, if I hold up all my money now … give a little bit to establish relationships etc, and then give a bunch in 15 years?

  • Holden on January 7, 2007 at 6:14 pm said:

    I totally disagree with Bob (and maybe Serkan, depending on the details of that chapter). Good giving enables people to have good, productive lives instead of bad, unproductive ones. Good giving therefore produces a “return”: the people you help can help others, multiplying your investment beyond what you did directly for them.

    And with the cost of enabling lives as low as it is, you get a much higher “return” on charity than you get on investing. Both companies and the poor can create more value if you give them more money; the difference is that investing, where the value accrues to you, is way more popular than giving, where it doesn’t. Therefore, giving is “cheaper,” and your expenditures today multiply more.

    And it’s not close. If you save your money today, you can get 5%/yr, more if you take more risk. If you instead use it to cure a cleft or fistula, that person is going to create way more than a 5% return on your $500-1000, in terms of good.

    There are still reasons to save instead of giving. #1, in my mind, is that you value yourself above others and want to make sure you have savings. #2 is that waiting longer means you’ll learn more and give more intelligently. But, you’ll learn more if you’ve got money in the game, so you should give something now regardless.

  • Y’all have been revealed as scammers on Ask Metafilter.’s founders are willing to dishonestly promote their “charitable” enterprise. Tells you exactly how much one should trust these hedge fundie rich kids with your charitable gifts.

  • The GiveWell Blog - Exploring how to get real change for your dollar. » Review of The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer on March 6, 2009 at 6:21 pm said:

    […] *To be fair, I’ve been down this line of thought before and come to the same conclusion. But The Life You Can Save makes the most thorough and complete case I’ve seen that I should feel really bad about it. This entry is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed. Leave a Reply […]

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