A Modest Proposal

Like many other computer science students this summer, I interned at a tech company in San Francisco. If you’re in the same boat, I have a modest proposal for you.

Let’s talk about money. I obviously can’t speak for all of us, but I’m making more income this summer than I ever thought I would while still in school. When I got my first offer letter spring of last year, it was inconceivable to me that apparently intelligent people would choose to pay a 19-year-old college student so much money.

Just to put us in the realm of the concrete, let’s take Google. Last I was aware, they pay $6K+ per month for a standard twelve-week undergraduate internship, meaning an average intern is walking away from the summer with about $18,000 before taxes — that’s $72K annually. Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon are all in the same ballpark, and this doesn’t factor in the free housing most of these companies provide, or the free meals. A funded startup will be less, but still in the range of $4–5K a month, or $48–60K a year.

Putting this into perspective, the median pretax household income in the U.S. was $49,400 as of the 2010 Census. So even if we’re on the low end of a startup salary, we’re making more per month than half of America. Working at Google, it’s more like three-fourths — and again, that’s before the free food and housing.

In short, tech interns make a lot of money.

What will we spend this money on? We might splurge on a new laptop, or an awesome Eurotrip. Some of it might go to paying for school, or saving for the future. All excellent uses, most of them probably for ourselves because, after all, we’re college students, and most of us don’t have to pay anyone’s bills but our own.

I want to suggest another small expense:

We should donate 10 percent of our income to charity.

I’ll explain the nuts and bolts of what I’m suggesting, but first let me explain why.

It starts with homelessness. Every day this summer, I passed a half-dozen homeless people on my eight-minute walk to work. The homelessness in San Francisco is everywhere, so I found myself constantly confronted by people, other humans, who are in need.

And what did I do?

On a good day, I’d give a polite smile and nod, or lie about not having cash. Often, I would glaze my eyes and just keep walking.

I think I can forgive myself this; homelessness is a complex issue, and I’m not really in a position to help through one-off interactions, especially when there is so much to do.

What I can do, though, is support institutions that do the hard work for me. Whereas I can at best buy someone a meal, an organization can help those in need while working toward sustainable solutions.

Maybe you don’t think homelessness is a problem worth worrying about, or that the dehumanization that comes with ignoring those in need is a bad thing. That’s okay.

Because this isn’t really about homelessness, or about San Francisco. It’s about how we contribute to the world. Homelessness in San Francisco isn’t the problem — but it is the most immediate reminder I had that the tech utopia I was supposedly helping to build is very, very far from solving the world’s biggest issues.

As a CS student today, a large majority of the jobs we will take and the projects we will work on are essentially solving first-world problems. Even when doing work that has a clearly positive impact — say, open education à la Coursera or Khan Academy — the beneficiaries of that work are still only those with a decent internet connection.

And I think that’s alright. Just because they’re first-world doesn’t mean they’re not problems, or that they’re not problems worth solving. But it does leave us with a responsibility of sorts: to in some way contribute back to a society that has given us so much, and help those who didn’t or won’t have the same opportunities we did.

Which brings me back to donating. This is the simple part: Take a tenth of your summer income, after taxes, and donate it. Ideally soon, and ideally somewhere local.

Why soon? So it doesn’t get spent. Why after taxes? It’s easier to calculate and you can always give 10 percent of your tax return when you get it. And why local? Because there are many worthy causes in this world, and the place where you lived and worked for the last three months is as good as any to start. This is just my suggestion, though: most important is to donate to somewhere that’s important to you.

But I don’t want to!

It is easy to balk at this idea, at first glance. Ten percent is a lot of money, you think. Why might you not want to donate 10 percent? There are many reasons; I’ll address some.

“I need the money to pay off student loans.”

No matter how in debt you are, 10 percent will not mean the difference between you being able to pay back your loans. If you’re in tech, you’ll still be making bank when you graduate, anyway.

“I need the money to take my Eurotrip / buy a MacBook Air / pay for my drug habit.”

Unless you need the money to feed, clothe, and house your own family, there’s nothing you could need to spend it on that couldn’t spare 10 percent for others in need. See above.

“I’m against giving away money I earned, especially to people who have shown they can’t be productive in society.”

I’m not going to address all the ways in which this view is messed up, but suffice it to say that we are, all of us, indebted to our privilege. Whether we were lucky enough to have a computer and internet to hack on growing up, or simply lucky enough to attend college, we did not earn this money in a vacuum but with the help of a system that supported us. A system that is not evenly distributed, and to which many do not have access.

If you’re still concerned about this, there are plenty of children’s programs to give to — and no one can argue that they’re responsible for their lot in life. I list some below.

“Giving money to charities amounts to hand-outs — we’re not addressing systemic issues, and we’re not creating real change or empowering communities, we’re merely assuaging our own guilt and increasing dependency.”

This is perhaps the reason why I’d be least likely to give, because I partially agree with it. But the fact of the matter is, most of us don’t have the time or inclination to address the systemic issues. So while it’d be great if we all only worked directly on the hardest social problems, and could be sure our work was directly empowering people, most of us won’t do that. I certainly won’t. Instead, we’ll do nothing. So if we can give to those who might be doing it right, and are at least doing something, we’re still closer to the ideal than before.

This is not a new idea, and I’m certainly not the first to suggest it. But I’m writing for an audience of tech interns because it’s never a bad time to start using our powers and privilege for good. In college and in tech, so much is provided for us, and we’re never given much reason to think about those who have less.

But our privileged position gives us a chance to change that, and to make sure that as we’re building the future, we don’t leave the neediest behind.


Below are some organizations that work with the neediest, largely in San Francisco. Some organizations, like Lutheran Social Services and the Episcopal Community Services, also operate in many other cities. If you’re more interested in projects in the developing world, check out GiveWell’s list of top charities.

Nurse-Family Partnership — A maternal and early-childhood health program, recommended by GiveWell for long-term efficacy.
Donate here.

Lutheran Social Services — Support services for individuals and families to achieve self-sufficiency, including money-management and affordable housing. Donate here.

Episcopal Community Services— Skill-development and essential services for the homeless. Donate here.

Project Homeless Connect— Help SF’s homeless population find resources they need to move forward. Donate here.

Up on Top — After school programs for children of low-income families in SF. Donate here.

The Food Pantry — A food bank for SF’s hungry. Donate here.

This is a partial list, and even providing it is somewhat at odds with my belief that giving money should be something we’re careful and thoughtful about. That means using resources like GuideStar and looking at how nonprofits spend their money. Sites like GiveWell are a step toward making this easier, but they currently have a small list, focus overseas, and have a particular set of values, so their use is limited. Developing a set of values to dictate giving should be a personal and intentional process.

Ultimately, though, I think starting and getting in the habit of giving is more important than being rigorous. After all, we’re college students, and it’s hard enough to find time for the simple things. So start small, and plan to iterate. It’s what we in tech do best.