How effective philanthropy gives me purpose

How effective philanthropy gives me purpose
Community health training in Nepal Photo credit: Lindsey Maya via Wikimedia Commons

With the holiday season upon us and the calendar year coming to a close, many take this time to decide where to send their annual charitable donations. I hope this year everyone will consider giving at least a little bit more to well-vetted and extremely worthy causes recommend by The Life You Can Save.

But I also invite casual donors to reflect on the role of giving in their lives. As long as I’ve been in the position to work a full time job, I’ve done my best to make charitable giving and research a significant part of my life. It’s not everything, to be sure. I have friends and family, entertainment and hobbies, all unrelated to charity. But it’s rarely far from my mind, and it's had a significant impact on the shape of my life.

I used to think it would be fine if I never made much money. Being rich has never been a particularly appealing lifestyle to me, and I felt there were many downsides and pitfalls to a relentless pursuit of wealth.

I still believe that’s true, to a certain extent. But I realize now that the amount of money I make can actually have a substantial impact on the wellbeing of others, by providing me with more disposable income to give to excellent causes. And since I have a fair amount of privilege and comfort in my life, I’m obligated to seriously consider the ways in which I can better help others.

Which is not to say that I am going to leave all my passions behind and pursue a career in financial investment, or some other career with a sky-high salary. In any event, my lack of interest and skill in these fields suggests that I would find little success there anyway. But I do take financial compensation of potential job prospects more seriously because of the good it could enable me to do for others.

And this way of thinking about my life provides benefits not only to others, but to myself as well. Rather than seeing charitable obligations as burdens, as they’re often portrayed, I think they bring an important focus to my life.

Photo Credit: HM Revenue & Customs

I’ve known many people who feel completely lost in their lives, looking for their “passion,” wrestling with ennui. Often this is the burden of the rich, who have so many options in life, it’s difficult to choose just one. I once even saw a job posting for a blog writer who “knows the daily challenges of the very wealthy.”

I’ve also known even more people who are generally satisfied with their lives, but express regret that they do little to help others. They valorize the traditional “altruistic careers”—teaching, medicine, and the like. They feel that, with lives and careers focused merely on self-satisfaction, there is something missing.

There is, indeed, something missing. But it’s not difficult to find. It is the pursuit and execution of ever-improving methods to better the lives of others, and help them meet their needs.

This is not an easy task. For starters, researching charities and potential causes can be a full-time job, and not an easy one. The variables and methodologies are complex and ever-changing, and the courses of action to consider are endlessly complicated.

It is, of course, not for everyone—not everyone has the time or interest to pursue these matters. But being a part of the conversation, taking it seriously, and letting it influence one's actions, can be a part of almost anyone’s life.

I donate to charity on a monthly basis, rather than a standard yearly schedule, for several reasons. First, I think it’s easier to give more money if you give a little bit at a time. I also think I can get a better sense of what percent of my income can readily go to charities in smaller increments. And finally, it keeps me actively involved with the causes I’m contributing to. I don’t just give my money to an organization and hope it does well—I read their literature, look at the research, consider the important features of the case on my own. In so doing, I find I’m not plagued with self-concern about my place in the world and what I should be doing. I have a fairly good sense of what I should be doing—I’m just trying to figure out how to do it better.

Cody Fenwick
Cody Fenwick
Cody Fenwick blogs about philosophical ethics and animal rights at The Lives of Animals. He advocates for veganism and effective altruism. Professionally, he is a special needs educator.
The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.

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