(Not-so) radical giving: Lessons from donating $600 last month

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

A while ago my friend’s dad was cycling down by the water when he noticed a commotion. A man was clinging to a sinking boat, calling for help. Two other men stood by, debating whether they should go in: didn’t drowning people try to pull you under? The water was very cold, maybe even dangerously so. My friend’s dad is 71 years old.

He went in anyway. In all his clothes, in his shoes. Two hundred dollars in cash washed out of his pockets into Lake Ontario. But he pulled the man to safety. He saved a life.

In his book The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer uses this very drowning situation as a metaphor: would you wade in with your shoes on? Many of us think we would, and maybe that’s true. But there are people we could save all the time, they’re just not right in front of us. If we could intervene and we choose not to, we are the bystanders, not the hero.

There are many reasons for this, of course: we can’t see a specific person who needs our help; we prioritize the needs of those close to us; we diffuse responsibility (can’t the billionaires just fix this?); we think our contributions will be futile; we blame individuals for systemic problems; we are told all the time that we work hard, that we deserve what we earn.

And I think we are afraid. Afraid to look at the pain of others, of becoming woke. Afraid of the responsibility that comes with that. Afraid that any money we give we will need, now or in the future. That don’t have enough, won’t have enough, aren’t enough.

I feel that sometimes. I live in a very expensive city, I work in an industry with low salaries and thin margins. I don’t own a home, or have a pension; my future earning prospects aren’t incredible. I assess menu items by price, debate every purchase. If I compare myself to many of my peers, I am behind. My heart beats, save save save.

But of course one thing this project did is remind me how much I have. I have a safe place to live, an education, nutritious food to eat, a job to go to, a healthy body and mind. If I fall, someone will catch me: societal safety nets, my family, my partner, my friends. I am a middle-class white lady — I will be fine.

And my saving impulse can be a useful tool. It means I’m less tempted by the daily buffet of consumer delights, have worked to get in touch with the distinction between wants and needs. Recently, we had the opportunity to move into a two-bedroom apartment downstairs for another $600 a month. It would be nice to have more space: two people + a cat is sometimes tight quarters in a one-bedroom apartment. But would it make us $600/month happier? We decided it wouldn’t. Here’s what that money could do, though: based on William MacAskill’s estimate, given to Against Malaria, it’s almost enough to save two lives (at $3500 U.S. each) every year.

The other morning I was listening to the radio and someone said they “live simply, so others can simply live.” And that seems to me the right thing to strive for.

Now, does this mean I should give away everything, pass up every ice cream cone or glass of wine, every opportunity for a vacation? Happily, it does not. In Doing Good Better, MacAskill reminds us the point of effective altruism isn’t to alleviate misery in low-income countries by causing it in high-income ones, and like a diet, our giving needs to feel sustainable for it to become a long-term habit.

So what to do, then, going forward? Most effective altruists decide to donate a percentage of their income, the rest they do with as they choose. That means every ice cream doesn’t have to be a moral battle and lives are still saved. Saving lives is, after all, an amazing thing, and should be something we do with a glad heart. In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer suggests, that unless you make over $125,000, 5% of your income is a good place to start.

All month I’ve wavered. “5% is a lot,” says my fear. “5% is a pittance,” says my conscience. This month, I gave about 17%. Before that, I was giving roughly 1%. (The average Canadian donates $531 a year, according to Charity Intelligence.) So 5% is still five times what I was giving, and I’ve decided that’s a good step. I’ll also continue a regular fundraising project that allows me to donate another few hundred dollars a year. The last piece: I’m coming into an inheritance sometime in the next while, and I’ve decided to give at least 10% of that, but I’m leaning to more. After all, I like the idea that one life ending could mean saving another.

In the end, I believe in taxation. And 5% is a small tax for living a life that feels more in line with my values, that recognizes all I’ve been given, and, of course, that changes countless lives for the better.

So who gets this money? I’ll keep up my existing donations, at least for now. Of what’s remaining, I’m going to give 80% to the Against Malaria Foundation, because while buying mosquito nets isn’t sexy, it’s the most effective giving you can do. I’ll give 5% each to Fort York Food Bank and Street Health, because I pass so much suffering on the street every day, and while I know, logically, there is even more suffering abroad, looking past these people feels so heavy. I’m going to give 5% to the Boundless School, because they’re doing such great work that gives me instant warm, fuzzy feelings. And I’ll save 5% for supporting others doing fundraising, to indulge in some fickle generosity. Because even the most logical effective altruist would concede we should embrace the part of giving that makes us feel good.

And while this was in many ways a dark month (thanks, Doug Ford; thanks Brett Kavanaugh), this giving did make me feel good: it gave me power when I felt powerless, it showed me light even as darkness descended. While it might not have made me as acutely happy as, say, the mini-break $600 could buy, it did give me a quieter happiness, a satisfaction in knowing that my values were not an afterthought, they were part of my foundation. Though I gave away a lot of money, I didn’t fret about the expense: in fact, it made me feel richer.

I also loved having conversations with people about this project or their own giving habits, so heartfelt thanks to everyone who took an interest, and especially to those who made donations of their own. If this project did cause you to rethink your own approach to giving, or exposed you to new organizations, I’d love to hear about it. We spend so much time talking about what we have, or might like to have: let’s spend more time talking about what we give away. Remember: your giving doesn’t have to look like mine, and it doesn’t even have to be monetary. But if other people’s well-being is important to you, make sure the way you spend your time and money reflects that.

I’ll admit, the blog stats for this project are pretty bleak, and sometimes that got me down. What was the point of all the researching and writing, the planning and coordinating, the emotional energy, if no one was reading, let alone giving? But my partner reminded me: you’re planting seeds — you don’t know what will happen.

Which makes me think of Rebecca Solnit, of course, who writes in her essential book Hope in the Dark, “[Hope] is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”

We can’t always see the drowning man clinging to his boat, yet he is out there. But we can leave our fear on shore. We can wade out in our clothes and start swimming.