Doing Good Better

Summary Written by Ingrid Urgolites
“Every one of us has the power to save dozens or hundreds of lives, or to significantly improve the welfare of thousands of people.”

- Doing Good Better, page 197

The Big Idea

Give to the Extremely Poor

"If you earn as much as the typical American worker, then you are one hundred times as rich as the very poorest people in the world, which means additional income can do a hundred times as much to benefit the extreme poor as it can to benefit you or me."- Doing Good Better, page 22

An average American worker earns $28,000 a year and is in the top 5% of wage earners worldwide. If you earn $52,000 a year, you are in the top 1%. Even those at the United States poverty level making $11,000 a year are living on $30 a day and usually, have access to social programs that shore up resources so they can maintain a high standard of living.

The poorest people in the world live on $1.50 a day—that is equivalent to what $1.50 would buy in the United States and includes food they grow themselves. They struggle to get food and clean water. They suffer from health issues that we have eradicated. They lack access to information and resources to solve these and other problems. They have a poor quality life and do not live long.

The ultimate value of altruism is increasing another person’s health and longevity, and we have the most opportunity in the poorest nations. A QUALY is a way to assign a value to ‘increasing the quality of life.’ One QUALY represents one year of perfect health and 34 QUALY’s are equivalent to ‘saving a life.’ In developing countries money buys 100 times the QUALY’s as it does domestically. If we allocate our resources wisely, we can all save lives and dramatically improve the quality of life for those who suffer the most.

Insight #1

Focus on a Neglected Area

"It means that the most popular causes are, precisely for that reason, the ones where it will be difficult to have a big impact. Because of diminishing returns, we can make a much bigger difference if we focus our efforts on areas which comparatively fewer resources have been spent, like less-publicized disasters, or global poverty rather than domestic poverty."- Doing Good Better, page 66

The holidays may inspire contributions to the local cause. End-of-year tax-deductions may prompt donations to national organizations. News of a disaster may incite an emotional need to fund aid. A friend suffering from a disease may trigger a desire to support research for a cure. Donating to common causes might make us feel good, but it has the least positive impact. Those causes and organizations that receive the most publicity also receive the most donations and have the most access to resources. The value of our money diminishes when funding is plentiful.

The least funded organizations support those who suffer the most. These people live in extreme poverty every day. It is hard for us to make an emotional connection because we cannot see them or evidence of suffering. Our lives are dramatically different from theirs. The media does not enlighten us, and we are rarely aware of our position globally. Not a lot of money will improve their quality of life dramatically. It is harder to have a conversation about causes with which others do not readily identify. Choosing neglected causes may take some extra thought. It is worth the effort to direct our extra income to those who suffer the most because it does the most good for the largest number of people.

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Insight #2

Earn to Give

"Earning to give means exactly what is sounds like: rather than trying to maximize the direct impact you have with your job, you instead try to increase your earnings so you can donate more, improving people’s lives through your giving rather than your day-to-day work."- Doing Good Better, page 76

It is not necessary to choose work that benefits those you wish to help directly. Someone else may be better qualified or in a better position to do the job. The best way to help is often by choosing work that you enjoy doing and will pursue successfully. When you are a good fit for your job, you have a better chance of earning more and working extra hours. You will be able to donate that extra income to those who perform the work to help those who need it most.

Jobs with corporations or government may not spark with idealism like a non-profit but as MacAskill writes, “Most of the incredible progress that humanity has made over the last few hundred years has not been due to the activities of nonprofits but through technology and innovation generally spurred by for-profit companies and governments.” Many for-profit companies are excellent places to work and provide not only higher incomes but important jobs that stimulate progress and benefit others in countless ways.

Some additional insight on volunteering: if your goal is for your philanthropic activity to do the most good and you are a volunteer, be sure to limit the gift of your time to engaging in activities you are skilled in and donating where they are needed. We all know for-profit companies spend significant resources on employees, and volunteers can drain resources from non-profits. Although you may enjoy volunteering it may be more helpful to enjoy doing another activity and leave the work to the organization. You may choose to work the time you would have volunteered and donate your income.

We can all put altruism into action more effectively every day. Choosing to focus on the extremely poor is a natural choice when we realize how much we have. It takes more effort to look for neglected areas and avoid the most popular causes but we get a greater return. We can choose a career that maximizes our earning potential so that we can give the most. And remember, our time is often most valuable spent earning to donate money instead of giving our time. If it is worth our time to optimize our work, it is also worth our time to maximize the good we can do with our extra profits.

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William Macaskill

I’m Will MacAskill, an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford, and author of Doing Good Better (Gotham Books, 2015). I’ve also cofounded two non-profits: 80,000 Hours, which provides research and advice on how you can best make a difference through your career, and Giving What We Can, which encourages people to commit to give at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities. These organisations helped to spark the effective altruism movement.

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