The GiveWell Blog

Spending the better half

Our fundraising efforts have started, and dang, do I hate asking for money. For three years, I’ve had way more income than I can spend, and I’ve rarely had to ask anyone for anything. That’s a nice position to be in. This – especially for an abrasive guy like me – is tough.

A common saying in the world of charity is: “Spend the first half of your life making money, and the second half giving it away.” As it’s become clear that GiveWell needs to be a full-time project, this saying has popped into my head a lot, and never more than now. Why not put off helping others until I’ve given myself more help than I can possibly use? Why not stay in finance, which I like fine, until I’ve accumulated such a massive fortune that I can finance GiveWell all by myself?

In exchange for letting the world wait a decade or two, I’d gain the freedom to do this project my way and only my way. I wouldn’t need a business plan and an elevator pitch and the incredible amount of work that goes between thinking and communicating. I wouldn’t need to fundraise; I wouldn’t need friends and allies; I wouldn’t need favors; I wouldn’t need anyone’s approval or permission.

And so, I’d do a much worse job.

Not even my incredible brain can look at things from as many angles as a roomful of different people; not even my awe-inspiring self-discipline will make me consider those angles as sincerely and thoughtfully as I do when I have to. If I can’t make GiveWell speak to people enough for them to put their money behind it, it will go nowhere. And if I do make it speak to them but I can’t follow through, I’ll be humiliated and devastated in a way that wasting spare cash of my own could never make me. These are the pressures that startups face, and the world is a better place because of it.

That’s why you should be concerned that philanthropy is currently seen as something to do with the “second half” of your life. “Second half” here isn’t just chronological – it’s referring to the half that specifically isn’t where the philanthropist made their name. The second half is the half that lacks risk, accountability, and the people who keep one honest (a set of factors collectively known as the “eye of the tiger”). All the great foundations today are following the orders of people who’ve made their fortune doing something else, and who no longer have to consider any criticism they don’t care for. I have to believe that matters, no matter how good their intentions.

The first half of life is where people do great things or fall by the wayside. I want to spend that half “giving it away,” and if you’re a donor or just a supporter, you should be glad that’s the half you’re getting.


  • Kate G. on April 23, 2007 at 2:49 pm said:

    Congrats on setting up The Clear Fund. If you do quit your finance job and work for non-profit pay, I can recommend some of the best dollar stores in the city from one non-profit professional to another. 🙂

  • Carrick on December 8, 2010 at 3:31 pm said:

    I’ve never heard of this first half/second half thing (I’m guessing because I’m in the middle class, which never has much to give away in the first place), and I think it’s ridiculous. The 10% tithe–no matter what or when–makes way more sense to me.

    The plain fact of the matter is that I have access to running, potable water and more than adequate medical services, which already makes me in a more fortunate position than, sadly, billions of people in the world. I’m not going to horde every cent until “later” while, in the meantime, I enjoy all those benefits and more. How many children have to die before I finally decide it’s the right time?

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