Clarifying the Giving What We Can pledge

CEA has got­ten a lot of ques­tions about the Giv­ing What We Can pledge lately, and we’d like to an­swer them here. We’ve also up­dated our Fre­quently Asked Ques­tions page and other parts of our web­site to re­flect re­cent ques­tions.

What is the Pledge?

This is the Pledge To Give:

“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.”

What’s the pur­pose of the Pledge?

Let’s look at this on three lev­els:

In­di­vi­d­ual: The Pledge is a tool for peo­ple to har­ness their good in­ten­tions and put them into ac­tion on a long-term ba­sis. It’s all too easy to mean to donate but never re­ally get around to bud­get­ing as much as you in­tend to. The Pledge is a com­mit­ment de­vice to help mem­bers stick to their goal of mak­ing giv­ing an im­por­tant part of their life through the years to come.

Com­mu­nity: When mem­bers con­nect with each other, they can share sup­port and en­thu­si­asm that makes the com­mit­ment eas­ier and more mo­ti­vat­ing. They also keep each other ac­countable; you’re much more likely to fol­low through on a com­mit­ment you make pub­li­cly.

So­ciety: Our vi­sion is a world in which giv­ing 10% of our in­come to the most effec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions is the norm. Of course, this doesn’t mean ev­ery­one will do it. But we hope to cre­ate a cul­ture in which giv­ing effec­tively, and giv­ing sig­nifi­cantly, is a com­mon and ac­cepted thing to do. We be­lieve that be­ing able to point to the Pledge, and to the thou­sands of peo­ple who have taken it, fur­thers this.

Ul­ti­mately, of course, the Pledge is not for the benefit of its mem­bers. It’s a means by which we aim to make the world bet­ter.

Is the Pledge just about global poverty?

While the Pledge was origi­nally fo­cused on global poverty, since 2014 it has been cause-neu­tral. Mem­bers com­mit to donate to the or­ga­ni­za­tions they be­lieve are most effec­tive at im­prov­ing the lives of oth­ers.

Do dona­tions have to be to reg­istered char­i­ties?

The com­mit­ment is to donate to “the most effec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions.” Th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions could be char­i­ties, but could also be en­tities not offi­cially reg­istered as tax-de­ductible char­i­ties (for ex­am­ple a char­ity in the early stages of get­ting reg­istered, or an ad­vo­cacy or lob­by­ing group that is not a char­ity).

Why 10%?

We chose 10% be­cause it strikes a good bal­ance. It is a sig­nifi­cant pro­por­tion of one’s in­come, in recog­ni­tion of the im­por­tance of the prob­lems and the need to take real ac­tion. But it is also within reach of most peo­ple in the de­vel­oped world. There is also a strong his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion to the idea of tithing, a tra­di­tion in Ju­daism and Chris­ti­an­ity of giv­ing 10% of your in­come to char­ity or the Church. Is­lam has a similar prac­tice (za­kat) in which those who are able give be­tween 2.5 and 20% to the needy. The pledge is of course just a min­i­mum. Some mem­bers de­cide to go fur­ther than this and pledge to give a higher per­centage. To ac­count for pos­si­ble changes in cir­cum­stances, we sug­gest pledg­ing a baseline per­cent that would be doable un­der a wide range of sce­nar­ios. So for ex­am­ple, you might pledge 10% or 20% but go be­yond that when pos­si­ble. About a sixth of mem­bers re­port that they donated more than 10% last year.

How per­ma­nent is the Pledge?

The Pledge is a promise, or oath, to be made se­ri­ously and with ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion of keep­ing it. But if some­one finds that they can no longer keep the Pledge (for in­stance due to se­ri­ous un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances), then they can sim­ply con­tact us, dis­cuss the mat­ter if need be, and cease to be a mem­ber. They can of course re­join later if they re­new their com­mit­ment.

Some of us find the anal­ogy of mar­riage a helpful one: you make a promise with firm in­tent, you make life plans based on it, you struc­ture things so that it’s difficult to back out of, and you com­mit your fu­ture self to do­ing some­thing even if you don’t feel like it at the time. But at the same time, there’s a chance that things will change so dras­ti­cally that you will break this tie.

Break­ing the Pledge is not some­thing to be done for rea­sons of con­ve­nience, or sim­ply be­cause you think your life would be bet­ter if you had more money. But we be­lieve there are two kinds of situ­a­tions where it’s ac­cept­able to with­draw from the Pledge.

One situ­a­tion is when it would im­pose ex­treme costs for you. If you find your­self in hard­ship and don’t have any way to donate what you com­mit­ted to while main­tain­ing a rea­son­able qual­ity of life for your­self and your de­pen­dants, this is a good rea­son to with­draw your Pledge. (Note that dur­ing un­em­ploy­ment you donate only 1% of spend­ing money, as de­scribed un­der “Cir­cum­stances that change the Pledge” be­low.)

The other is when you find that you have an op­tion to do more good. For ex­am­ple, imag­ine you pledged and are now de­cid­ing whether to found a non­profit (which will take all your fi­nan­cial re­sources) or keep your “day job” in or­der to be able to donate 10%. If you have good rea­son to be­lieve that the non­profit will do sig­nifi­cantly more good than the dona­tions, that found­ing the non­profit is not com­pat­i­ble with donat­ing 10% of your in­come, and that you would not be able to make up the gap in dona­tions within a cou­ple of years, with­draw­ing your Pledge would be a rea­son­able thing to do.

The spirit of the Pledge is not to stop you from do­ing more good, and is not to lead you to ruin. If you find that it’s do­ing ei­ther of these things, you should prob­a­bly break the Pledge.

We un­der­stand that some peo­ple have a very strong defi­ni­tion of “pledge” as mean­ing some­thing that must not be bro­ken un­der any cir­cum­stances. If this is your sense of the word, and you wouldn’t want to take a pledge if there were any chance of you be­ing un­able to keep it, you might find that Try Giv­ing on an on­go­ing ba­sis is a bet­ter fit for you.

How of­ten should mem­bers donate?

The spirit of the Pledge is to donate on an on­go­ing ba­sis, rather than let­ting “dona­tion debt” build up over many years. We check in with mem­bers ev­ery year and en­courage them to log their dona­tions. How­ever, you don’t have to donate on a strictly an­nual ba­sis. Mem­bers who con­soli­date dona­tions into cer­tain years (for ex­am­ple for tax ad­van­tages, or in case of tem­po­rary fi­nan­cial hard­ship) are wel­come to do so.

If a mem­ber be­comes un­able to keep their pledged dona­tion per­centage for more than a few years, it would be ap­pro­pri­ate for them to with­draw from the Pledge. We have made a form where peo­ple can offi­cially do this. Former mem­bers are wel­come to re­join if they wish.

Cir­cum­stances that change the Pledge (and some that don’t)

Some cir­cum­stances change the amount you Pledge:

Stu­dents, un­em­ployed peo­ple, and full-time parents

Many stu­dents, un­em­ployed peo­ple, and full-time par­ents have lit­tle or no for­mal in­come. But in the in­ter­est of all of our mem­bers giv­ing what they can, we feel that the spirit of the Pledge re­quires them to donate at least 1% of their spend­ing money.

We define spend­ing money as money re­ceived for the pur­pose of spend­ing on items such as food, rent, travel, chil­dren, or per­sonal items. It does not in­clude spend­ing on tu­ition fees.

Of course, peo­ple who earn some in­come but de­pend on other help for their liv­ing ex­penses may choose to donate 10% of their earn­ings if they want to go above and be­yond.

Retirement

Peo­ple who have re­tired or par­tially re­tired (which we roughly define as hav­ing started to draw a pen­sion) can join Giv­ing What We Can and re­main mem­bers for as long as they con­tinue to donate at least 10% of their spend­ing money (as defined above).

Be­cause the Pledge is “for the rest of my life or un­til the day I re­tire,” those join­ing be­fore re­tire­ment can con­sider their Pledge com­plete upon re­tire­ment.

Couples

Cou­ples who both want to take the Pledge can pledge 10% of their joint in­come if they wish. Please let us know and we can set up your My Giv­ing ac­cord­ingly and can list you to­gether on the list of mem­bers if you’d like.

How­ever, some cir­cum­stances do not change the pledge:

Debt

Peo­ple tak­ing the Pledge should con­sider whether they will be able to donate 10% even while han­dling debt such as stu­dent loans or a mort­gage. Debt does not change the com­mit­ment to donate 10% of in­come as long as you have a reg­u­lar in­come.

Work­ing at nonprofits

We’ve heard some con­fu­sion on this point. While we think di­rect work can be ex­tremely valuable, the pledge per­centage does not change for those work­ing at non­prof­its. Those of us who work for non­prof­its, even if we left higher-pay­ing jobs to do so, still donate at least 10% if we take the Pledge.

What counts as in­come?

The goal here is to help mem­bers stick to their plan of tak­ing sig­nifi­cant ac­tion to benefit oth­ers. All guidelines about how to crunch the num­bers should be thought of as serv­ing that goal.

In gen­eral, we define in­come as your gross salary or wages. For most peo­ple, this yields a good ap­prox­i­ma­tion of what they would con­sider their in­come. In cases where it yields some­thing strange (for ex­am­ple, if your pri­mary in­come is from con­tract­ing and so count­ing only salary and wages makes it look as if you have no in­come), a sen­si­ble al­ter­na­tive is to use what­ever your gov­ern­ment counts as your in­come for tax pur­poses.

While we have defined in­come as pre-tax in the past, af­ter speak­ing with mem­bers in a va­ri­ety of situ­a­tions we be­lieve there should be some flex­i­bil­ity here.

  • If you ex­pect to re­ceive a tax de­duc­tion for your dona­tion, we recom­mend bas­ing your giv­ing on your pre-tax in­come.

  • If you ex­pect to get lit­tle or no tax de­duc­tion, for ex­am­ple be­cause your coun­try does not offer tax de­duc­tions on dona­tions, you may choose to donate based on post-tax in­come.

Again, we rec­og­nize that a sim­ple rule won’t work perfectly for all pos­si­ble situ­a­tions, so we en­courage mem­bers to con­sider the spirit of the Pledge: us­ing a sig­nifi­cant por­tion of one’s in­come to benefit oth­ers. We are always happy to help think through these de­ci­sions if you’d like to con­tact us.

Should ev­ery­one pledge?

While we be­lieve the Pledge is a good fit for most of the peo­ple read­ing this, clearly it will not be the right choice for ev­ery­one.

Some rea­sons it may not make sense to take the full Pledge:

  • You have plans to do some­thing very re­source-in­ten­sive like found­ing a startup or non­profit. (Although see Ben West’s ex­pe­rience as an en­trepreneur while keep­ing to the Pledge.)

  • Your em­ploy­ment or health situ­a­tion is un­sta­ble.

  • You ex­pect your stu­dent debt to be par­tic­u­larly heavy, so that the years af­ter grad­u­a­tion will be es­pe­cially fi­nan­cially tight.

  • You have fam­ily obli­ga­tions that re­quire much of your money.

Be­cause of con­sid­er­a­tions like these, some of our own staff have de­cided not to pledge at this point or have spent years donat­ing be­fore de­cid­ing to pledge.

Tak­ing the Pledge is not nec­es­sary to be part of the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity, and no one should feel pres­sured to join sim­ply to feel that they are in good stand­ing. We rec­og­nize the rich­ness of ways that peo­ple con­tribute to this com­mu­nity and to the world, and that the Pledge rep­re­sents only one of the many ways of tak­ing sig­nifi­cant per­sonal ac­tion to benefit oth­ers.

Other options

Try Giv­ing lets you com­mit to give the per­centage of your choice for the time pe­riod of your choice. You’re still wel­come to be part of the Face­book group for Giv­ing What We Can mem­bers, at­tend GWWC com­mu­nity events, and use My Giv­ing to track your dona­tions. For peo­ple who don’t want to com­mit to the full Pledge, this can be a way to keep on-track and mo­ti­vated.

For en­trepreneurs who plan to in­vest all their money in the busi­ness with the hope of earn­ing more later, the Founders Pledge may be a good op­tion. Mem­bers of the Founders Pledge com­mit to donat­ing at least 2% of their per­sonal pro­ceeds upon exit to char­ity.

Isn’t this too sim­plis­tic to fit ev­ery­one’s spe­cific situ­a­tion?

Mak­ing the Pledge bet­ter in some ways makes it worse in oth­ers. A plan that ac­counted for ev­ery pos­si­ble con­sid­er­a­tion in a per­son’s life would be more equitable, but would also end up read­ing like a tax code. We be­lieve that the abil­ity to suc­cinctly ex­plain the Pledge to oth­ers has great value, and that adding all con­ceiv­able loop­holes and caveats would diminish that value. In the end we trust mem­bers to abide by the spirit of the Pledge, which is us­ing a sig­nifi­cant por­tion of one’s in­come to benefit oth­ers.

The Pledge doesn’t (and shouldn’t) en­com­pass all the ways one might do good. We’re ex­cited to see the many ways that peo­ple use their time and money for al­tru­is­tic pro­jects, both through the Pledge and through other efforts.

What should I do if I have more ques­tions?

Please talk to us! We don’t know how to em­pha­size this enough.


Ju­lia is Com­mu­nity Li­ai­son at the Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism. Giv­ing What We Can is a pro­ject of the Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism.