A lot of us come to Columbia as first-years thinking that we’ll change the world. We want to save the refugees; we want to eradicate malaria; we want to end world hunger. A few of us persevere and go to work for organizations like UNICEF, Oxfam, or Médecins Sans Frontières—or Doctors Without Borders—but most either give up on our humanitarian dreams or fail. Some of us are true academics, and go off to write Ph.D.s, but a lot of us “sell out” and work in lucrative industries like banking, consulting, and software engineering.
If you truly believe in the importance of doing good, or if you’re one of those “change-the-world” types who envisions a life in the nonprofit sector and still hasn’t succumbed to the pressure to sell out, I am here to encourage you to do exactly that. Charity work should not be for self-fulfillment or for self-gratification. It is for the sake of helping others, and if we believe that doing good is an ethical obligation, we must help others in the most effective way possible. And the fact is, your money is almost always far more valuable to a charity than your labor.
Lack of money is a far bigger concern to some of the world’s most effective nonprofits than lack of qualified workers. Indeed, the competition for low-paid nonprofit jobs is cutthroat—MSF’s acceptance rate is on par with that of the Ivy League colleges. The efforts of organizations such as the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, or GiveDirectly, which distributes cash payments to impoverished people in Kenya and Uganda, would benefit much more from an extra $100,000 per year than from one more job application from a talented young student or graduate. If you are someone who really wants to help, seeking employment at a nonprofit should be the last thing on your mind.
I’m not saying that nonprofit workers are useless, or that they aren’t doing the good work—in fact, they are. They work long hours for low pay, and they volunteer for dangerous field assignments in war-torn and impoverished countries. These charities don’t need more workers—there are far more highly qualified candidates than openings But they need money, and it shows—they never refuse donations. If you work for Facebook and make enough to donate $140,000 a year, that could be the salary of two or three extra staffers, an extra 70,000 bed nets, or an extra 1,000,000 doses of deworming medication. Depending on cost-effectiveness, that could save an additional 30 or 40 lives per year.
Columbia students have uniquely privileged access to some of the highest-paying jobs in the world. According to Glassdoor, the average software engineer at Facebook earns approximately $200,000. A first-year lawyer at Cravath makes $180,000 and the average investment banking analyst at JPMorgan makes $134,000. If you can survive two promotion cycles over six or seven years, you could make an average of $350,000 as a vice president. Charitable donations are tax-deductible, too, so you’re able to contribute the vast majority of your income above what you need to live decently. Even if you keep $60,000 for yourself, the good that you could achieve by working one of these jobs and donating the money dwarfs the good that you could accomplish through any other means.
When you take a look at just how effective the world’s best charities are, you start to get a sense of the suffering you could prevent by earning to give. Since charity is for the sake of helping others, and not for self-gratification, it’s also your obligation to choose the charities that will create the most good for the money you give them. GiveWell, an organization which evaluates the effectiveness of charities, finds that it costs the Against Malaria Foundation approximately $2,000 to save a child under 5 years old, or to achieve an outcome equivalently good. They find that the Deworm the World Initiative can achieve the same thing for approximately $850, and that Helen Keller International, which combats the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition, achieves that amount of good for approximately $1,500. If you’re a committed utilitarian like me, or if you simply want to know how cheap it is to prevent unimaginable suffering, I encourage you to visit GiveWell’s site here and read their cost-benefit analysis here.
The consequences of your actions are enormous. Every $2,000 that you could have donated to the Against Malaria Foundation, but chose not to, is a life not saved. It shouldn’t matter if you’re doing the good work directly or paying for someone else to do it—what matters is that your actions made it possible—so at some point, we have to ask ourselves whether giving the $2,000 it costs to save that life would require us to give up something morally significant. And no matter how you slice it, the displeasure you would get from working at Facebook or Goldman or the displeasure you’d get from parting with the money you earn there is not morally significant compared to saving 30 or 40 (more as you get promoted) human lives per year.
Each one of us has enormous earnings potential, and consequently, enormous potential to do good in this world. I am addressing people who want to work for nonprofits because they are probably already comfortable with dedicating their lives to doing good, but the obligation extends to all of us. In a very real sense, there is blood on our hands, and for as long as easily and cheaply preventable suffering exists in this world, it is our duty to prevent it as effectively as we can.
Robert Tang is a junior in the School of General Studies, majoring in economics and mathematics. If, for some unfathomable reason, you wish to contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Guilt by Association runs alternate Thursdays.
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