Reflections on a brief span of giving


A few minutes ago, a woman approached me for donations to a charity that supports the local deaf community. Such events in life are always awkward, but this had the potential to be doubly, nay, triply so. For at that very moment, I was staring at the confirmation page to donate to Captain Awkward herself.

My choice was between giving money to a woman who writes a funny advice column on the Internet so she can buy some fancy cheese, on the one hand, and giving to people whose fundamental quality of life could perhaps be substantially improved with my contribution on the other. I had chosen the former, and I knew it.

The woman in front of me only brought that knowledge into the open. She didn’t need to see my browser window to challenge my priorities. I’m happy to say that I faced the challenge with resolve: I told her that I couldn’t help, and then I sent some of my hard-earned money to a lady I don’t know in Chicago.


A few months ago, I outlined a structure to give away 5% of my income to charity in a way that bypasses my “large sums of money, tho!” mental subroutine. I’ve made four monthly donations since then, and there have already been a few noteworthy benefits.

Most importantly, having a clear, limited charity budget that I’m proud of maintaining eliminates my compulsion and guilt when I’m approached about giving someone money. I can say, inside my own head at least, “I’m sorry I can’t give you anything. I don’t have a lot of money, and I need to take care of myself by limiting my charitable expenditures. When I do give, I try to make sure it’s to people that I can help as much as possible, and unfortunately that can’t cover everyone. I hope you get what you need.”

Outside my own head, I am as brusque as most people. Sometimes I only shake my head. But without the cloud of guilt, I only feel empathy and good will. While this might not manifest itself as a kind act in the moment, I think that I am a kinder person through these encounters than I would be if I were not donating money elsewhere.

This kindness propagates, ever so slightly, to the rest of my life. My donation to Captain Awkward is just one result of that propagation. I don’t think of that as charity; it comes out of my separate discretionary budget. It was just something that I wanted to do for a woman who has made my life better so that her life can be a little better, too. Being in the habit of giving people money cleared my self-protective barriers to even thinking of clicking the “donate” tab.

One of the keys to making this work for me is keeping a rigorous “charity” system, and then letting myself do whatever silly sub-optimal thing I feel like after that. That means that no generosity that’s left over after my charity budget is spent can be squandered; it also means it’s okay to never give someone on the street money because I always feel in the aftermath like I got scammed, or because I just don’t feel like it. I have that right in every possible sense.

I have that right in a sense bestowed upon me by our legal system protecting property. I could argue with mixed conviction that I am endowed with that right as a human being. But I also have that right in a moral sense that I rent with a check due every month.

I should hardly need to say that morality doesn’t work this way. Donating a tiny slice of my income is far from a “get out being a decent person free” card. But it helps me to give myself license to be kinder and happier, so I suspect there’s some underlying morality here that works for subtler reasons.

I’ve found another benefit that is specific to the particular giving structure I’ve imposed on myself. Since I interpret my donations in terms of a periodic day’s labor, I look forward to my last work day each month. I work hard knowing that however much my research might be backsliding, what I’m doing is supplying people with anti-malarial bed nets or deworming procedures. I doubt it actually makes my work better, but it gives me another kernel of motivation, and it makes the work itself feel good as part of the donation process.


It’s generally in bad taste to talk too much about all the things you do that are all holier than the things thou doth. No doubt, making people feel inadequate is boorish, as is proselytizing anything. To justify this post, then, I appeal to three facts.

First, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how my mind apparently responds to its stimuli, which is a worthwhile exercise in almost any context.

Second, I emphasize as in my last post about charity that people should find whatever giving structure works best for their particular combination of neuroses, predilections, and resources. The particular approach I’m taking accomplishes that for me, but not giving to charity at all might accomplish that for some people.

Finally, people rarely make changes in their lives apropos of nothing. I was catalyzed to shift my approach to charity by discussions of effective altruism from Scott Alexander and Ozy Frantz on Slate Star Codex and Thing of Things. In the likely event that there are other people who might find their lives improved through open soliloquy about these ideas, we’d better just bite the bullet of perceived immodesty and get soliloquizing.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on a brief span of giving

  1. discorded says:

    Your last post about charity contributed in a positive way to my own thoughts about charitable giving, so that’s one data point in favor of immodest soliloquys.
    In some sense I would like to give more than I do (about 2%), but I think I have a sort of paranoia about Being Irresponsible that makes it hard for me to increase giving (or spending, for that matter) by a significant amount at a time. So I could maybe argue that a slow, gentle increase — up to 5% or 10% or whatever — better fits my neuroses and resources, as you say. But at the end of the day I’m still doing less good for the world than I could reasonably doing, so I’m a Bad Person so blurgh ooh look a distraction!
    It’s encouraging that you seem to have found a way to defeat or at least greatly mitigate this sort of faulty thought process.

    • JR says:

      Yes, I think gentle increases are probably a good idea. One way to curtail being A Very Bad Person Who Isn’t Doing Enough is to have a system and stick to it. Giving 2% next year, then 3%, then 4%, and finally leveling off at (say) 5% could help you feel like you’re doing what you’re “supposed” to. But if you feel irresponsible morally for not giving enough and irresponsible financially for giving too much, then I think the problem has more to do with being comfortable making up your mind about what’s best and committing to it.

      In fact, I’d probably recommend AGAINST donating money to escape feeling like a bad person. If that’s what you’re in it for, then the problem won’t be fixed, because I can guarantee that you won’t do all that you can (for one possible example, structuring your life to make the maximum amount of money and living as cheaply as possible so that everything else can be donated…and even if you did that, you might still feel bad about not being talented enough to make even more money to donate, if that were what was driving you).

      You should donate because it feels good and probably makes you a nicer person, and it helps to resist people leveraging guilt on you (which is not quite the same thing as doing it to avoid feeling like a bad person on your own), or any number of other reasons.

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