Serious Philanthropy

Cody Smith
3 min readNov 28, 2017


If you were pretty casual about philanthropy in the past, this advice is for you. Maybe you gave a pocket full of change to the Salvation Army Santa. Maybe you donated $50 for a friend walking to benefit breast cancer. Maybe you sent $200 to the Red Cross after a hurricane, earthquake, or fire.

The world needs more generosity, and you can be that change by getting serious. Fortunately it’s easy: make a plan to donate at least 3% of your income every year. If everyone did this, the world would be a radically different place.

There are a lot of ways to do this, but I wanted to share my personal approach. Hopefully this will help get you started. Once you start, it’ll be hard to stop.

Step 1: Compute a Budget

Start with your gross income last year. If you can’t remember and you work in the US, find your tax return and look for adjusted gross income (AGI) on your 1040. It was box 37 in 2016. Now multiply it by 3%:

gross income x 3% = philanthropy budget

Maybe you’re thinking, “wow, that’s a big number.” That’s good; you’re serious now. In the United States most donations are tax deductible, so the impact on your net income will be smaller.

Three percent is meant to be a number that any comfortable person can afford. If your income is higher than most, you should set aside a larger fraction. I personally set aside 6%, but usually overshoot. If that’s too scary, start with 3% and consider adjusting next year.

Step 2: Identify Interests

Spend some time thinking about your values, and what causes are most deserving of your money. Giving will be more satisfying if you really care. My areas of interest are:

  1. Homelessness/hunger
  2. Public art
  3. Chronic illness
  4. Social justice
  5. Education
  6. Internet policy

Your list will grow and change over time, so don’t worry too much about getting it right at the outset. If you can only think of two right now, that’s enough to get started.

Step 3: Identify Organizations

Spend an hour or so researching each interest online, to find organizations doing good work.

Third-party sites like Give Well and Charity Navigator help you ensure your dollar is well spent. Here’s a summary of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, for instance. Don’t get stuck contemplating; your money still makes a big difference even if it isn’t optimally allocated. Plan to get more informed and more involved over time, not all at once.

These are my regular contributions:

  1. SF-Marin Food Bank
  2. Peer Resources
  3. San Francisco AIDS Foundation
  4. Drug Policy Alliance
  5. Electronic Frontier Foundation
  6. Black Rock Arts Foundation
  7. UC Berkeley School of Optometry

Leave some fraction aside for requests from friends who are fundraising. Generally I set aside about 20% of my budget for these.

Spreading out your donations throughout the year will give you more joyous feelings. I get a day or two of delight whenever I make a large donation, so I usually send a chunk of money off every six to eight weeks.

Step 4: Give

Go to the organization’s website, put in your payment info, and send money. If you have gift matching from your employer, fill out the form before you forget. If you want to spread out your donations throughout the year, put them into your calendar in advance. Pick the “recurring” option if available, so you don’t have to remember.

If the donation is tax deductible in your country, keep the receipt you receive via email and make yourself a note to remember at tax time. If you’re making a single, very large donation, you might want to double check the organization’s 501(c)(3) status first.

Expect snail mail spam, particularly glossy booklets with annual updates, and letters requesting more money. These are basically pervasive, but they’ll stop if you ask nicely. Alternatively, many brokerage firms will donate anonymously on your behalf.

Step 5: Spread the Love

Be a leader. Talk to people about your interest in philanthropy, and your process for identifying worthy causes. Make it normal in your culture.