Peter Hurford thinks that a large proportion of people should earn to give long term

Re­cently, 80,000 Hours wrote that they think only a small pro­por­tion of peo­ple should earn to give long term. They asked their team “At this point in time, and on the mar­gin, what por­tion of al­tru­is­ti­cally mo­ti­vated grad­u­ates from a good uni­ver­sity, who are open to pur­su­ing any ca­reer path, should aim to earn to give in the long term?” and got a me­dian an­swer of 15%.

I’m not con­fi­dent in my re­sponse, but when think­ing about the move­ment as a whole, I’d sug­gest a ra­tio closer to 50%, if not as high as 80%.

The ra­tio of dona­tion op­por­tu­nity gen­er­ated per staff of EA orgs sug­gests a need for a higher-earn­ing to give ra­tio.

This con­sid­er­a­tion is definitely more spec­u­la­tive, but de­pend­ing on how you look at the num­bers, it’s pos­si­ble to jus­tify an earn­ing-to-give ra­tio above 29% and pos­si­bly as high as 99%.

The Size of the Opportunity

The biggest ex­am­ple of gen­er­at­ing a lot of donat­ing op­por­tu­nity per staff mem­ber is the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion. They only havetwo full-time staff, yet ac­cord­ing to GiveWell their 2015 room for more fund­ing was around $5M. This sug­gests that a very high tal­ent EA di­rect worker could gen­er­ate as much as $2.5M for earn­ing-to-give peo­ple to at­tempt to fill with dona­tions.

Give Directly has 25 staff and has a room for more fund­ing of some­where be­tween $1M to $25M (with the po­ten­tial for much more), which is some­where be­tween $40K to >$1M per staff mem­ber.

How Much Do Peo­ple Earn to Give?

80K found in their 2014 sur­vey that peo­ple do­ing earn­ing-to-give were donat­ing on av­er­age $13K/​year for 2013, with an ex­pec­ta­tion to rise to $56K/​year within three years if peo­ple’s plans are taken at face value. A fol­low-up in 2015 found a new av­er­age of $16.5K/​year for 2014, though for a more limited sam­ple.

Ac­cord­ing to the EA Sur­vey (fo­cused on 2013 data), the mean dona­tion in our sam­ple from EAs who met the crite­ria for earn­ing-to-give (>=$60K an­nual in­come and >=10% dona­tions) was $9.5K/​year.

Now Let’s Do Math

Us­ing the best pos­si­ble num­bers for earn­ing-to-give, imag­ine that an ad­di­tional di­rect work per­son was like the AMF staff and gen­er­ated $2.5M in dona­tion op­por­tu­nity. Now imag­ine I took the low value of earn­ing-to-give, $9.5K/​year. Us­ing these two num­bers, it would take 263 peo­ple earn­ing to give to match one per­son do­ing di­rect work, sug­gest­ing that 99.6% of peo­ple should earn-to-give.

If in­stead I look at GiveDirectly’s low num­ber of $40K per staff mem­ber com­pared to a high value of earn­ing-to-give ($56K/​year), I calcu­late you need 1 per­son earn­ing to give for ev­ery 1.4 peo­ple do­ing di­rect work, sug­gest­ing a ra­tio of 29%.

The Prob­lem With Fund­ing Salaries

Of course, it does seem clear that marginal di­rect work­ers won’t be as pro­duc­tive at cre­at­ing earn­ing-to-give op­por­tu­nity as AMF staff have been, so there will be less to fund per marginal di­rect worker.

Fur­ther­more, AMF may not be typ­i­cal of char­i­ties marginal di­rect work­ers are mov­ing into. Char­i­ties like CEA or MIRI scale not by cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to fund pro­grams, but rather through hiring staff, and this ends up with a lower amount of dona­tion op­por­tu­nity to staff mem­ber (equal to their salary).

Still, even if we ex­pect earn­ing-to-give peo­ple to be pri­mar­ily fo­cused on fund­ing salaries, we may need more than 15%. Con­sider the clas­sic story of ETG who takes a job in fi­nance to fund two di­rect work­ers, dou­bling their im­pact. First, if salaries + over­head per staff are ~$50K/​yr (though they can be much lower), a 15% earn­ing to give ra­tio would re­quire the av­er­age earn­ing to give dona­tion to be over $330K, which seems un­re­al­is­ti­cally high, even for the next three years. A more re­al­is­tic ra­tio where the av­er­age (not me­dian) earn­ing-to-give per­son donates $50K/​year (still more than is cur­rently hap­pen­ing) would be 1:1, or 50%.

Se­cond, the AMF model should not be ig­nored when think­ing about dona­tion op­por­tu­nity cre­ated per marginal di­rect worker, and it’s quite pos­si­ble that in some sce­nar­ios we may need many earn­ing-to-give peo­ple to sup­port the op­por­tu­ni­ties cre­ated. It’s an open ques­tion what pro­por­tion of EA re­sources should be go­ing to GiveWell’s scal­able health char­i­ties, which of­ten gen­er­ate mil­lions of dol­lars in dona­tion op­por­tu­nity per em­ployee, than other EA orgs where the dona­tion op­por­tu­nity per em­ployee is quite less. Those who think the ma­jor­ity of EA fund­ing should fo­cus on GiveWell’s top char­i­ties, or that GiveWell top char­i­ties should be the de­fault giv­ing op­por­tu­nity for the typ­i­cal donor ab­sent good rea­son to donate el­se­where, should also be far more in­clined to think that more peo­ple should earn-to-give.

EA Orgs Have More Room For More Fund­ing Than Peo­ple Are Giv­ing Credit For

Re­cently I’ve been in­volved in some EA pro­jects that I’ve wanted to fundraise for. On three oc­ca­sions with three sep­a­rate EAs the re­ac­tion was always “Huh, I’m re­ally sur­prised that hasn’t been funded already.” …And many of those pro­jects still need money.

There is sup­posed to be an ex­plo­sion in earn­ing to give. But I don’t think it’s ar­rived quite yet. From my point of view many plau­si­bly im­por­tant pro­jects still want more fund­ing.

Just to men­tion a few pro­jects I’m aware of --

  • Char­ity Science feels tal­ent con­strained but also could re­ally use more money for planned ex­pan­sions we can’t af­ford yet.

  • Some peo­ple close to GBS Switzer­land told me they feel fund­ing con­strained.

  • Sev­eral pro­jects cur­rently go­ing through EA Ven­tures have not yet raised the fund­ing that they wanted.

  • And other pro­jects I’m aware of are on the hori­zon and may make more pub­lic pitches soon.

...Of course, it’s pos­si­ble you may not be­lieve in sup­port­ing these pro­jects. If so, de­pend­ing on what you want to sup­port, it’s pos­si­ble the re­main­ing room for more fund­ing may be quite small. But the be­lief I’ve been hear­ing from some that all EA pro­jects are get­ting fully funded all the time and that EA Ven­tures will sim­ply take care of the rest is not cur­rently true.

Earn­ing to Give May Have Bet­ter Ca­reer Capital

Ca­reer cap­i­tal, as 80,000 Hours defines it, are the skills, cre­den­tials, con­nec­tions, and other benefits you get from a ca­reer that help you have more im­pact in the fu­ture. Since what mat­ters is your to­tal im­pact and not your cur­rent im­pact, it’s quite plau­si­ble that young peo­ple (in­clud­ing my­self) should be fo­cus­ing much more on ca­reer cap­i­tal than hav­ing an im­pact now.

Earn­ing to give ca­reers usu­ally have good ca­reer cap­i­tal op­por­tu­ni­ties. Usu­ally the most im­por­tant skills (80K sug­gests com­puter pro­gram­ming, web de­vel­op­ment, statis­tics, ma­chine learn­ing, in­de­pen­dent work, self-mo­ti­va­tion, sales, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and man­age­ment) are typ­i­cally found in abun­dance in good for-profit ca­reers that also hap­pen to have good earn­ing to give po­ten­tial.

Yes, you can cer­tainly find this cap­i­tal in non-ETG ca­reers, and I want to be care­ful to not fall into a char­ity vs. for-profit ETG di­chotomy when many ad­di­tional op­tions ex­ist (e.g., re­search, academia, and poli­tics). But I gen­er­ally be­lieve that it is eas­iest to find ca­reer cap­i­tal within earn­ing-to-give ca­reers and it be­comes much eas­ier to tran­si­tion out of earn­ing to give and into other ca­reers than vice versa (with maybe the ex­cep­tion of academia).

Earn­ing to Give Fits More People

Fur­ther­more, psy­cholog­i­cally, earn­ing-to-give seems to me to be a bet­ter fit for the av­er­age EA than di­rect work. Many EAs are already work­ing in a com­pany and can sim­ply move to donate more of their salary or fo­cus on in­creas­ing their salary, rather than quit their job and start a new one. Fur­ther­more, EA di­rect work is fre­quently con­cen­trated in cer­tain cities that re­quire re­lo­ca­tion, which can be a big choice.

Another ad­van­tage to earn­ing to give is it’s of­ten eas­ier to ac­com­plish for peo­ple who have less al­tru­is­tic mo­ti­va­tion or di­rect work tal­ent. Of course, this cer­tainly misses 80K’s point be­cause they were talk­ing about peo­ple on the mar­gin and peo­ple who were high-tal­ent and high-mo­ti­va­tion who were open to many ca­reer paths. That is a differ­ent ques­tion. But in the ac­tual move­ment, it’s im­por­tant to note that many peo­ple are not in the top 0.1% of drive and tal­ent. Yet they still have a valuable thing to con­tribute—a share of their job through earn­ing to give. It’s of­ten much eas­ier to get, keep, and do an earn­ing-to-give job than it is to do EA di­rect work.

Lastly, earn­ing to give fre­quently gives much more ca­reer cap­i­tal than other jobs early on in one’s ca­reer, which would al­low for peo­ple to launch more suc­cess­ful non-ETG ca­reers in the fu­ture. It’s gen­er­ally a lot eas­ier to move from earn­ing to give to not earn­ing than vice versa, given con­straints on per­sonal sav­ings and on var­i­ous in­dus­tries.


Ob­vi­ously the choice be­tween earn­ing to give or some­thing else is a per­sonal one that is sen­si­tive to your per­sonal skills and fit. But I think if you have the abil­ity to en­ter a par­tic­u­larly high-earn­ing ca­reer, there are good rea­sons to do so, and more peo­ple should be con­sid­er­ing it than the cur­rent wis­dom seems to sug­gest.

There are cer­tainly good rea­sons to think 80K’s ar­gu­ment is cor­rect—there is already a lot of money in EA through Good Ven­tures and other high net-worth in­di­vi­d­u­als and there is a po­ten­tial that ex­ist­ing earn­ing-to-give EAs may start donat­ing much more soon. I’m ex­cited how much the EA move­ment might grow through more di­rect work. How­ever, I think we are still a ways off un­til earn­ing-to-give peo­ple start re­li­ably fund­ing the re­main­ing 85% of the move­ment.

But un­til things change, I’d sug­gest that 15% seems to me to be quite small, and I’d sug­gest an earn­ing-to-give ra­tio at 50% or even as high as 80% for the move­ment as a whole.