Julia Wise and I donate half of what we make to the most effective charities we can find. Since 2008 we've donated over $400k:

  • 2008: $10,706 (27.7%)
  • 2009: $28,309 (32.9%)
  • 2011: $35,056 (36.9%)
  • 2012: $49,933 (49.1%)
  • 2013: $98,950 (40.5%)
  • 2014: $128,556 (50.2%)
  • 2015: $55,000 so far, going for 50%

(full details)

We mostly follow GiveWell's recommendations because the depth of their research is just super impressive. There's no one else who comes anywhere near to answering "if I want to do as much good as possible with my money, where should I donate?"

We were recently in Quartz, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Daily Mail, and did an interview on CBS Boston.

So: ask me anything, and if you have questions for Julia (/u/jdennon) post those too!


Comments: 168 • Responses: 39  • Date: 

cb35e21 karma

Thanks for doing the AMA! How do you choose the fraction of your income to donate? Under what circumstances would you change that "on the fly" (e.g. sudden expensive medical bills)?

cbr23 karma

We used to disagree on how much to donate, where Julia wanted to donate more and I was wary of giving away too much and saving too little for our future. We had a complicated system where we would each choose a fraction of our income to donate and then live together on the non-donated portion of our incomes, but this got to be too much of a hassle, so starting last year we agreed to just do 50% of our combined income. We like the symmetry: one for us, one for the world.

This year we did have a large unexpected expense but we had some savings and are still trying for 50% for the year.

TyQuil14 karma


cbr21 karma

When you look at the level of poverty in the world, it's pretty overwhelming. There are so many people living on so much less than I would even have thought was possible! I figure I earn more than I really need to live on, and I should try to make do with less so others can have more.

ElizabethEdwards12 karma

Hi Jeff!

Could you and/or /u/jdennon describe your decision-making process for having a child? I have the vague feeling that it's looked-down-on from an EA perspective, but you two seem to make it work.

Do you hope she will be less consumption-oriented as a tween than tweens seem to be? Are you doing anything now to help her have less interest in the accumulation of stuff?

Do the public schools in your area satisfy you, or are you going to take a different educational path?

Do you and Julia have any student loans? Did you in 2008?

(I know I could probably find all this out by searching your blogs, but an AMA is the perfect opportunity.)

cbr14 karma

Could you and/or /u/jdennon describe your decision-making process for having a child?

I actually wrote a post about that, Ok to Have Kids? in response to the 2013 journal article The Immorality of Having Children.

If having kids is very important to you, you should go ahead and do it. It would be great for more people to make altruism a bigger part of their life and we don't get there by telling people they have to give up their core dreams.

Do you hope she will be less consumption-oriented as a tween than tweens seem to be?

I mean, it would be nice if she wasn't very consumption oriented, and neither Julia nor I were, but kids turn out all sorts of ways.

Are you doing anything now to help her have less interest in the accumulation of stuff?

She's not yet two, so I don't think what we do now has too much of an effect in that direction. She does like to play with the recycling more than with most of her toys, but cardboard boxes and paper towel tubes are just objectively awesome.

Do the public schools in your area satisfy you, or are you going to take a different educational path?

We're not sure yet. We'd like to send our kids to public school, and it's certainly cheaper, but we're planning to do more research as we get closer to the time.

Do you and Julia have any student loans? Did you in 2008?

We did have student loans, but smaller than many people's. Our parents paid most of our college costs, which is an advantage many people don't have. We paid the last of our loans off sometime 2009.

an AMA is the perfect opportunity

Yes, that's fine! It's a lot easier for me to answer than for you to read thousands of words.

LuminiferousEthan12 karma

Do you enjoy all the attention you are getting for being so kind hearted?

cbr8 karma

It feels kind of weird having lots of journalists asking us detailed questions about our lives and then seeing lots of public discussion, but it's also really exciting how many people have told me that they're going to be trying to make giving a bigger part of their lives.

torobar9 karma

What cause areas and specific organizations do you donate to, and why?

cbr22 karma

My favorite charity right now is probably the Against Malaria Foundation. Malaria is one of the biggest killers of children worldwide, and bednets are both cheap and effective.

Have a look at their GiveWell review (warning: long!) for a very thorough description of how they're one of the best giving opportunities out there.

chinhodado8 karma

What do you think when you read articles that point out the inefficiency, even corruption, of charity organizations? How do you feel when you read about those cases where >90% of donation money go into "administrative cost" and such? Do they dissuade you from donating?

cbr12 karma

These articles make me sad, or sometimes angry. That people would take contributions for those who need the help the most and siphon them off for their own benefit is just horrible.

On the other hand, this doesn't dissuade me from donating because by relying on solid external evaluation you can make sure your money is going somewhere where it will actually do a lot of good. I recommended GiveWell and I'll do it again: don't just donate to people who call you up and ask for money, look for charities that have stood up to some of the toughest scrutiny out there.

Frajer7 karma

What have you had to sacrifice to make it possible to do this?

cbr18 karma

Mostly we set a budget, and live within it. A friend likes to say "it's clearly possible to live on less, because nearly everyone does". We buy most of our clothes at thrift stores, don't have a car, and try to find cheap or free ways of having fun.

ilikeacoustics7 karma

In your giving, how important do you find it to make sure you've maximized your earning potential? How have you weighed this against your enjoyment/satisfaction with your work?

cbr15 karma

Consider someone who's earning $50k: the most they could even in theory donate is 100% or $50k. But if they could find a higher paying job where they could earn $150k they might be able to give $75k and still live on more than they earn now. If you're in a position where you could be earning more, you can get a lot of mileage out of that. On the other hand, being in a position where you could earn substantially more is relatively uncommon: most people are already trying to earn as much as they can.

In terms of satisfaction, I do think it's important to find satisfying work. But mainstream advice here is often really bad: people say "follow your passion" but this doesn't actually work especially well at finding a satisfying job. I think the don't follow your passion article is pretty good.

AgentElman2 karma

I saw an article about this concept - if you want to help the world and can make a lot of money the best thing to do is to make a lot of money and donate it.

You could work at a non-profit for $30k a year. Or you could make $150k a year and donate $60k to pay for the non-profit to hire 2 people.

cbr2 karma

I saw an article about this concept

Perhaps this one? "Join Wall Street Save the World"?

the best thing to do is to make a lot of money and donate it.

It depends what your skills and talents are. Earning to give is definitely a strong option, and it gets stronger the more you're capable of earning, but like Julia I'd recommend looking over 80,000 Hours to see some other great choices.

reads_error_message6 karma

What type of work do you do that makes your income appear to be rising exponentially? You've doubled income twice in five years.

cbr15 karma

Our income was going up for a few reasons:

  • I work as a programmer, and demand for programmers has been super high lately
  • I switched jobs a couple times to places that would pay more
  • I was initially a very junior employee right out of college
  • Julia was in graduate school and now is working full-time

Our income stopped rising in 2013, and I'm not expecting to see large gains here.

Polynuclear5 karma

Figuring out roughly how much I need to save for retirement enabled me to donate 30% of my gross salary this year, but I'm not sure I can keep this up or increase the amount. What percentage of your gross income do you save for retirement each year? Where do you invest this money? What is the amount of money you want to have in savings when you retire and how did you determine that? When do you plan to retire?

cbr6 karma

First off, congrats on donating 30%! That's awesome!

As for how much we save, we try to save about $15k/year. That's about how much we spent on ourselves in 2013, and so even if we live a long time and our money doesn't do well in our retirement account we should still be ok.

We invest with Vanguard in a 401(k), and the money is in index funds. Being outside of the finance industry I don't think it would make sense for us to be picking individual stocks.

EDIT: actually we save more like $27k/year in our 401(k). It's $18k from us, and then work puts in another $9k as a 50% match.

KnowledgeNate5 karma

Why do you feel the need to get public recognition for your "charitable" good works?

cbr6 karma

I'm happy to try to do the right thing without public recognition, but I actually think it's really important for people to give publicly. If everyone gives privately then if you look around you have no idea whether everyone is giving a lot or a little. Should I give 3%? 10%? 30%? By letting people know that you give you help make giving more normal.

argentinum455 karma

When you were faced with a literal trolley problem on the Red Line, did you actually weigh the relative utilities of different courses of action, or did you operate according to some deontological rule about how to act in such situations?

cbr6 karma

In situations where you need to make a decision very quickly it doesn't work to try and weigh utilities, you need simple rules.

In this case the two biggest things that would have affected my decision weren't things I knew: (1) were they likely to lose their hand, which depends on tunnel clearance, and (2) were the brakes going to fail to repressurize. So careful weighing probably wouldn't have helped much.

Mascara_Stab5 karma

Do you put it away monthly then donate it in a lump sum once a year, or do you donate monthly? What's the system?

cbr8 karma

It's a mix. We donate the most at the end of the year ("giving season") because that's when GiveWell tries to make their reccomendations most up-to-date, but we also give some at other times of year.

sundin4mvp4 karma

Have you both ever looked into giving to local charities in your home town? (Ie. SPCA, after school programs, YMCA, ect...)

cbr5 karma

See my response to /u/likestosurf for why we don't think giving locally makes sense.

Mathemagition4 karma

Why don't you donate to MIRI or x-risk?

shouldbeworking234 karma

How much do you make a year?

shouldbeworking236 karma

how'd you go from 38 to 250 in 6 years? What do you do?

cbr7 karma

See my response to /u/reads_error_message.

$38k was Julia's first full year out of college and I was still in college until June that year.

NorbitGorbit4 karma

have you looked into donor advised funds in terms of optimizing the timing and tax impact of your donations?

cbr5 karma

Donor advised funds are a great way to handle the case when you're sure you want to donate but you're not sure where you want the money to go yet. You can donate the money now, which both commits you to it and applies to this year's taxes, and then when either you better understand what you'd like to fund or the available options change you can allocate the money where you want it to go.

In our case we want to donate now because we think the opportunities available now are strong, so we don't use one.

An_aussie_in_ct3 karma

Is that half of what you earn, or half of what you take home?

Because looking at the above, you would be living on about a quarter or your total salary in 2012, which i doubt would cover expenses like health insurance and house payments.

cbr10 karma

Half of what we earn, more than half of what we take home. Specifically, it's half of what the IRS considers to be our "adjusted gross income".

Health insurance is mostly paid for by my work, though.

But yes, this does have us living on around a quarter of our total income. Most years less than that, because we save some too, but this year we spent most of our savings on a down payment for a house.

An_aussie_in_ct2 karma

Did you just not increase your expenses as your income grew? Looks like you are living on about 30-40k per year, which is very impressive when you are making around $250k gross

cbr8 karma

Yes, we try not to let our expenses increase as we earn more. I ask myself: if I didn't need it last year when we had less money, do I really need it now?

Awpossum3 karma

Does it mean you guys have some kind of power over the charities you donate to, or do you just give your money and let them deal with it ?

jdennon9 karma

We've never tried to change their course. We figure it's their full-time job to run their charity, so they're probably better at it than we are.

cbr4 karma

We did do this a little early on, though, when we donated to Oxfam America and earmarked it for "monitoring and evaluation". The idea was that people who work at Oxfam were generally in favor of doing more research to figure out what approaches worked best so they could focus on those, but they were worried that the general public didn't see the value of this. By earmarking our donation we were saying "we do think this aspect is important", and in a sense helping vote on priorities for the organization. Though of course we were pretty small relative to their total budget.

Since then, however, we've decided that it generally makes more sense for us to support organizations that are already very close to our views than to try to convince ones to adjust their priorities.

arrrtoo3 karma

What are your political leanings, and how much research do you do into charities to make sure they fit those leanings?

For example, I'm anti-war, and anti-intervention. I would like to help out in the middle east, but the whole situation is so politically complex, and the multiple superpowers and upcoming superpowers involved, with their intelligence operations, grass roots operations, propaganda, news influence, etc. make it incredibly difficult to be even REASONABLY sure that your investment would do more good than harm.

So how do you know, for example, when you support a charity for equal rights in the Middle East, that you're not actually funding a CIA grass-roots operation to overthrow a democratically elected leader, or something equally terrible? How do you know that, when you support a campaign to get a "journalist" released from prison after being accused of spying by a foreign government, that it's not really a spy, posing as a journalist, and that supporting him won't be helping to discredit and destabilise a legitimate government?

Also, a second question, if I may: do you fund political parties? If so, how do you reconcile this with individuals who have their own right to vote for a particular candidate, but cannot fund their choice to the same level that you can fund yours?

cbr3 karma

What are your political leanings?

For me: http://www.jefftk.com/p/policies

[deleted]3 karma


cbr8 karma

I have a Bachelors in Computer Science and Linguistics. Julia has a Masters in Social Work.

canadarainfall22 karma

I generally agree with the aims of effective altruism, but the shaming that some of its proponents use is off-putting. Yes, I care about the suffering of people in the developing world, but I also care about my own well-being and the well-being of those around me. Should I feel guilty when I take myself out to dinner for a $15 meal? After all, I could have survived by spending less than a dollar on rice instead and donated the rest to a GiveWell-approved charity.

Did you buy the computer that you're using to conduct this AMA? Are you wearing reasonably comfortable clothes right now? Have you ever bought a present for your wife or child that could have gone to a child in Kenya instead? Did you both try to become Wall Street bankers before settling for engineering and social work (not one of the most lucrative careers out there), respectively? Why not donate as much of your salary as possible until you only have enough left to live just above the poverty line for a family of three? You'll still be fine by global standards.

When you've committed yourself to an extreme form of altruism, what you give will never be enough. There's probably a child somewhere who died tonight because you once bought yourself a pizza instead of donating to a charity to fight malaria in Africa. How could you have been so thoughtless? Congratulations, you're a moral monster.

cbr9 karma

You're really letting perfect be the enemy of good here.

Andsuddenlyseymour2 karma

What kind of tax breaks do you claim/get every year?

cbr1 karma

We report our donations on our taxes, which gets us a deduction on our federal income taxes but not our state ones. The deduction makes it roughly as if we hadn't earned the money in the first place. So if you earn $100k, donate $40k, and deduct that $40k as donations then federally you're taxed on the $60k you didn't donate at the normal people-earning-60k tax rate.

argentinum452 karma

Would you promote contra dancing as a way to save money on recreation that you can then donate? What are some of your favorite things about contra?

cbr6 karma

Would you promote contra dancing as a way to save money on recreation that you can then donate?

I like contra dancing, but there are lots of other cheap ways to have fun: board games, casual sports, arguing on reddit.

What are some of your favorite things about contra?

It has a great learning curve. Anyone can just walk in off the street and dance, but then as you dance more you learn more and more depth to it, so someone who's been dancing for a decade can have a great time dancing alongside someone who's never done it before.

And then after that the music. I'm biased, but live music is just really fun and there are so many great dance bands.

People who are interested in finding a place to try contra dancing should check out this site I made.

InTupacWeTrust2 karma

If the world donates half their earnings then the world would be a better place. What was your favorite charity to donate to?

cbr4 karma

I like the Against Malaria Foundation a lot: http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/AMF

hackthat2 karma

You guys are the best! Really, I'm a big fan and follow your wife's blog. Glad you're getting more attention now. I just gave away ~25% of this year's income.

My question is I'm going to graduate with a physics PhD in a year or so and I can't get 80000hours to tell me what career I should take. Right now I'm aiming for some biotech company because my research is in molecular biophysics, but I also love programming even though I don't have much experience in it. Also, in not that great at bench top biochemistry. Besides earning to give what career do you think will make my impact biggest?

cbr1 karma

I just gave away ~25% of this year's income.

That's awesome!

Besides earning to give what career do you think will make my impact biggest?

If you can find work that would reduce the risk of pandemics or improve public health (vaccines, eradication, etc) that could be really valuable.

likestosurf2 karma

Do you consider donating to your local environmental nonprofits? For example Land Trusts, river keepers, and watershed associations?

cbr10 karma

A long time ago, when it was hard to get solid information about how things worked in areas away from your own, giving locally made a lot of sense. There wasn't really much other way to make sure your money was having the effect you wanted. But things have changed: travel is cheaper, communication is cheaper, and randomized controlled trials exist. Now evaluators like GiveWell can consider charities anywhere in the world and examine the evidence for them. These days the only reason I would give locally would be if I believed people near me mattered more than people farther away, but that's definitely not true. Everyone matters.

As for whether environmental nonprofits make sense, the important thing to keep in mind is that we're not just interested in donating to organizations that do good work; we want to find the places where our money will go the farthest. This isn't just liking to optimize: anything short of the best is unfair to the people who need our help. So to fund an environmental charity it would need to be doing more to make the world better than any other organization out there, which is of course an extremely high bar.

Do you think there's a land trust, river keeper, or watershed association that could do more with additional money than the Against Malaria Foundation, that distributes bed nets to keep people from getting malaria and dying? Or than Deworm the World, that advises governments on how to manage campaigns to keep schoolchildren parasite-free so they can better succeed in school? I'm not asking this rhetorically, I'm really interested in whether you see a large benefit here.

likestosurf2 karma

Yes, I do think that people need to act locally everywhere. Small nonprofits that preserve land regionally are needed because they can save land from being developed and thus protecting water quality for people and wildlife better than national organizations that aren't going to notice forested plots of land for sale. Riverkeepers also actively reduce pollution and keep waterways healthy. Clean water is not something to be swept under the carpet in my opinion. This is long term thinking for future generations. I am glad that you are helping against preventable diseases worldwide and I think it's a worthy cause. There are groups everywhere doing their best to mitigate very real problems with very little resources.

VorpalAuroch1 karma

The most effective way to minimize development in endangered areas is almost certainly related to changing building codes in large cities to make them more built-up, and therefore reduce urban sprawl.

cbr3 karma

I'm not as sure as you are here, though less sprawl is definitely better.

I suspect you mean "zoning" instead of "building codes".

flyingturtlecat2 karma

Do religious beliefs influence your outlook on giving? What are your religious backgrounds and current affiliations?

cbr1 karma

Neither of us are religious; we give because people need the help.

sumant281 karma

What are your thoughts on veganism?

cbr0 karma

Let's say you care about animals a lot. Like, you think that giving a human an extra year of healthy life (DALY) is about as good as a cow spending a year on a dairy farm is bad. This is pretty extreme: most people think humans matter more and that while dairy cows don't lead great lives they're not terrible. But let's stick with 1:1 because it is conservative and makes the numbers easier.

The AMF is somewhere under $100 per DALY; how much good does giving up dairy do? A cow produces a lot of milk, 6-7gal a day, so one cow can supply the dairy needs of about 20 people. Which means each person who gives up dairy reduces the number of cows on dairy farms by about 1/20th.

If you think 1:1 is reasonable, then giving $100 to the AMF does about as much good as giving up dairy for 20 years. And as I said, 1:1 is pretty extreme; if you think the cow life is 100 times less valuable than the human life then $1 to the AMF is equivalent to the 20 years without dairy. I suspect most people would rather donate the money.

sumant282 karma

the cowspiracy facts indicate that the current projected rates of animal consumption is unsustainable in the light of growing demand in developing countries leading to climate change, fresh water depletion, pollution, loss of arable land.

Given that your charitable contributions indicates an intention to make the world a better place do you think that lifestyle choices to consume animal products should be looked at seriously in light of the fact that not doing so could lead to serious long term negative consequences for our civilisation?

UmamiSalami2 karma

A more direct comparison than one with the AMF's work is the cost of actually funding vegan advocacy campaigns.

I live on similar principles to Kaufmans and I eat meat because it lets me save a little bit of money on a budget diet which I plan to donate either to animal advocacy charities or to other organizations if I deem them better uses of money. I think abstaining from meat is admirable, I did that too for a semester or so, but I've found this a more productive way for me to live.

cbr2 karma

the cost of actually funding vegan advocacy campaigns

The cost estimates of vegan advocacy campaigns are really really rough. We'll know more soon once the veg ads study results are released, but my current prediction is they'll find a change too small to detect.

I eat meat because it lets me save a little bit of money on a budget diet which I plan to donate either to animal advocacy charities or to other organizations if I deem them better uses of money.

Eating meat while donating to charities that, say, help people, makes sense to me. Eating meat while donating to organizations that try to convince other people to give up eating meat seems like a bad idea, though.

cbr1 karma

My initial response was from the perspective of someone who was considering whether the suffering of the cows was a good reason to stop eating dairy. Let's look instead at the environmental argument.

The carbon footprint of a gallon of milk is equivalent to about 18lb CO2 (mostly methane). That is 123 gallons per ton CO2-eq. That's very close to the average consumption of a dairy eater I was using above, so a year's worth of dairy is about 1 ton CO2.

You can avert the emission of a ton of CO2 for about $2.

These are all pretty small numbers.

sumant280 karma

This is an inadequate way of trying to calculate the impact on the climate in ways that are important and meaningful. It is much more accessible to start from a top down calculus

Taking the figures revised from the frequently cited Food and Agriculture Report 51% of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture. The consensus from climate change scientists is that current levels are already high enough to prove conclusively that causes of climate change are anthropocentric and demand for animal products increases with rising income levels seen in the developing world.

Your link to payments to offset an individual persons fraction of that figure is based on suspect heuristics. The charity naively thinks (or perhaps you do in relying on them) that trying to talk locals out of cutting down their rainforests with various proposals will respond to and anticipate growing demand for animal products and the profit incentive attached to that.

In addition carbon dioxide isn't the only greenhouse gas of concern. There's also methane and nitrous oxide which has magnitudes more greenhouse effect and also gets in and out of the atmosphere more quickly so is important strategically to reduce what's already in the atmosphere.

cbr1 karma

causes of climate change are anthropocentric

Definitely. I agree that there's climate change and that we're causing it.

The charity naively thinks (or perhaps you do in relying on them) that trying to talk locals out of cutting down their rainforests with various proposals...

There are real offset projects. For example, many farmers in the US use a pit for animal waste to decompose in. You can install a system that converts the methane this gives off into co2, decreasing it's potency as a greenhouse gas by 25x, but it's not legally required and costs money. So paying the cost for farmers to install these really does reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

carbon dioxide isn't the only greenhouse gas of concern

The numbers I posted were based on CO2 equivalents (I wrote "equivalent" and "mostly methane") and so already take this into account.

figures revised from the frequently cited Food and Agriculture Report 51% of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture

I see 18%: http://www.fao.org/agriculture/lead/themes0/climate/en/

Dowew1 karma

do you like pants ?

cbr1 karma

Yup! I wear them every day.

workingtimeaccount-6 karma

If I was able to convince you that just paying for me to live and attempt to help the world instead of being stuck in an office for 40 hours a week was superior than the efforts of any charity, would you stop giving to charities and give to me?

cbr8 karma

I think you're not very likely to convince me of that, but of course if you did convince me and so I really thought that was the best way to improve the world, then that's where I'd donate.

therealdanhill-9 karma

Can I be charity? I certainly meet the qualifications.

cbr8 karma

I want to help others as much as I can with the money I donate. Can you argue for why "give it to /u/therealdanhill" is a strong candidate for "the most effective way to make the world better"?