The Thing You Can Change

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Everyone wants to make a difference. But it so often seems impossible. So much of the world appears intractably broken. There are wars you cannot stop, diseases you cannot cure, wrongs you cannot avert, pain you cannot relieve, people you cannot persuade, problems fueled by sheer overwhelming inertia. And it is easy, faced with a world broken in a million, million ways, to despair.

But –  if you’re reading this, there is probably something in the world you can change. Something big.

You have a secret power that you can start using immediately.

You can save someone.

And you can do it yourself.

You can do it right now.

And you won’t be alone.

You’ll be joining a legion of people who have also uncovered this power hidden in plain sight, pooling their resources in a global effort to defy the natural order and protect their fellow humans.

This power goes by many names: tithing, donation, charity. It can transcend space, spreading your will to protect to where it’s needed most, even if it’s thousands of miles away. It can be fueled by any profession. Waiting tables, creating art, constructing buildings, programing, driving, performing surgery, practicing law, plumbing, cleaning, performing – all of it can be converted into protection, into hope, into life by the alchemical process of donating money.

Between now and January 10th, hundreds of people are going to take the Giving What We Can Pledge: 10% of their future earnings to save, protect, defend, rescue those who need it. To enable them to live their lives and follow their dreams and overcome the million million evils of this world. And, if you so choose, you can join them. You can fight back against everything that is broken in the world.

I know that not everyone can do this. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life. But if you’ve been fortunate too, you can start spreading that fortune to others. I took the pledge last year and gave 10% of my pre-tax income in 2014. This year, I gave 17%. And most of the time, I didn’t think about it. I woke up, I went to work, I struggled with frustrations, I talked to friends, I learned, I played, I made mistakes, I loved, I lost – I lived my life. But always, in the background, that pipeline, and the comfort of knowing that however broken the world was, there are people working on making it better, and I’m a part of that global effort. In 2016, I’m aiming for 20%.

According to Givewell, approximately every $3000 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation saves another human life. An. Entire. Human. Life. Decades of living, hoping, dreaming, friendships, love, learning, beauty, art, mistakes, laughter, tears – an entire life, instead of the sorrow and emptiness of a life cut short. If you can donate that much or more a year, then you can save someone. Every. Single. Year.

Maybe this isn’t something you can do right now. And that’s okay. But – if you can, and it you want to – then you can change the world right now. You can choose to live in a world where one fewer person dies for want of a bednet. You can tip the scales just a little bit more in humanity’s favor.

You don’t need to wait.

You don’t need to ask for permission.

You can fight back against everything that is broken and wrong in this world, right now, and protect that which would have otherwise have been lost.

You can make a New Year’s Resolution whose effects will be felt across the globe for decades to come.

You can change the world.

You are filled with determination.


12 thoughts on “The Thing You Can Change

      1. Since dhillaoeu hasn’t replied, I’ll jsut supply my best guess as to their meaning. I do not endorse this reasoning, I’m just trying to sketch someone else’s idea.

        The GWWC Pledge is comparable to raising a child in terms of resource allocation. Therefore, you can imagine someone who otherwise would have had N children having M<N children on account of the GWWC Pledge.

        The sort of children who would be raised by the sort of people who take the GWWC Pledge might do a lot of good for the world. If a child who isn't born on account of their would-be parents investing the resources in charity instead, and that child would have gone on to do more good for the world than the donated funds did, then the parents have sacrificed a larger long-term gain for a short-term one.

        Points of contention: I suspect that the impact of charitable donations on fertility is minimal, and I'm honestly not even sure of the sign on that; but even if we grant the point that there's a tradeoff between charity and child-rearing – I worked out some napkin-math guesses on this a while back, and it was really hard to get a reasonable result where the expected future global utility of a child outweighed the good you could have gotten by donating those same funds.

        1. Also, on a practical level, I will be emotionally uneasy with raising a child for the specific purpose of increasing global utility. There aren’t many bullets I’m not willing to bite for the sake of consequentialism (or as I prefer to call it, “actual people actually dying”), but raising and indoctrinating a child is pretty high up there.

  1. I like saving lives as much as the next guy. The constant calls to donate are getting to be a bit much, but they make sense. The calls to take a pledge to keep donating, not so much. What if your finances tank, what if you find out charity stats are cooked and it’s not effective after all, what if you still want to donate but don’t want to associate with the movement?

    This is sounding less and less like “Save this cute orphan!”, and more and more like “Join our club!”.

    1. I mean, most of the people we’re saving aren’t orphans, and I’m agnostic as to cuteness.

      If my finances *really* tank, such that I cannot spare 10% of my income, then I will break my pledge. I take measures such as “saving money in a sane and diversified portfolio” to mitigate this possibility. If you are living in a situation in which you can’t save any money and/or losing 10% of your income would put you in a precarious situation, you should probably not take the GWWC pledge (though you may want to see what steps you can take to save more money regardless).

      If it turns out that *all* the effective charity stats are cooked, including the stats on GiveDirectly’s findings that giving poor people money makes them less poor, then I’ll donate to whatever my best guess is for most effective charity. If all else fails, I’ll finance smart people to go out and find/create those opportunities (actually, that’s pretty much what I do right now, since my main donation target is GiveWell, who in turn spends the money on a mix of effective interventions and research into effective interventions).

      If I still want to donate but don’t want my name on GWWC, then I’ll ask them to make me anonymous and delist me. As is, I am strongly in favor of both being public about my good deeds and making EA/GWWC more visible and widespread, so of course I want my name on there.

      1. Man, I knew I was bad at getting a point across, but I didn’t know I was this bad.

        Improving the world is good. (Duh.) Improving the world as much as possible given resources is good. Bragging about it is good. Promoting the movement which calls itself Effective Altruism is not necessarily good.

        You are familiar with pithy sayings like: Every cause wants to be a cult. Effective Altruists are increasingly calling not just for the end results (no malaria, etc.) but also for displaying affiliation with the movement itself.

        This is bad for obvious reasons. In particular, it will be very easy to load the “Effective Altruist” label with all sorts of unrelated ideology.

        1. You’re right – if only there were some *very specific and well-defined call to action* to focus on, instead of vaguely promoting the abstract of idea of “effective altruism”.

  2. Mä en kuulu nyt mihinkään kirjakerhoon, mutta kymmenisen vuotta sitten kuuluin kolmeen. Unohdin aina peruuttaa kirjat ja koko homma tuntui muutenkin kauhean työläältä. Siksi erosin kaikista. Se kerholehti oli kyllä kiva ja aina yhtä odotettu. 🙂

  3. Best way to make a difference is to give someone a job. If you can’t afford to give someone a full time job, give them a part time job. There is stuff you need doing around the house, repair, yard work, child care, whatever, start asking around, friends, family, if they know someone : it might turn out to be a retired person who needs a little extra money to make ends meet; or someone who can’t find a regular job. Pay them $15/hour — more if you live in an expensive area. If they are any good, recommend them to your friends and neighbors.

    This doesn’t sound like charity, but it is, the best kind.

    1) because you KNOW the money is going to someone who needs it.
    2) because there is no overhead for administrators/advertising/etc on this charity. No need to worry about scams either.
    3) because the person you are helping gains in self respect instead of losing self respect

    It is frustrating in one way: the people you can help in this way are, objectively, better off than lots of people in 3rd world countries, maybe better off than most people in 3rd world countries. But, helping people effectively thousands of miles away is extremely difficult, frankly, maybe impossible. But helping someone who lives in your area isn’t that hard at all.

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