Activist Career and Giving Choices
Our research uncovered the most impactful way individuals can make a difference.
The top most effective individual actions include:
- Choose a high-impact career
- Give what you can to effective charities and progressive organizations
Choose a high-impact career
Many individuals want to make a difference with their career, but most of us feel lost about how to actually do so. Often, the only options seem to be taking a low-paying nonprofit job or taking a “normal” job just to pay the bills and treating activism as a hobby. You might consider becoming a doctor or lawyer, or even just starting a graduate degree with the hope that you’ll figure out how to apply it later, but the prospect of years of expensive schooling can seem daunting.
In 2011, two undergraduates who wanted to make the world a better place decided to find another career path forward. They were tired of the traditional career advice to “follow their hearts”—they wanted to know how to ensure their efforts would actually help the problems they were most concerned about—global inequality, poverty, disease, climate change, and more. They researched every aspect of career development in order to find the careers that are proven to create lasting change.
They’ve since transformed their personal research into a nonprofit organization, 80,000 Hours, which offers a free, in-depth career planning guide for anyone who wants to use their career to make impactful change in the world. Their name is based on the fact that, on average, you will spend 80,000 hours at your job over your lifetime. In fact, you will probably spend more time at your job than you will spend engaging in any other activism acts over your lifetime. What if you could transform your largest time commitment into your biggest activist act? You can.
Through their research into the impact of different careers, 80,000 Hours found that the four most impactful career paths are:
- Research—both within and outside of academia
- Advocacy—encouraging others to create change and promoting solutions to the world’s problems
- Direct work—providing services and help to those in need
- Earning to give—taking a higher paying job to donate your extra profits to charity
Choosing an impactful career could allow you to save hundreds of lives, dramatically transform the political landscape, or build critical activist or charitable infrastructure that can continue impacting the world for decades to come.
Thankfully, 80,000 Hours also found that in order to be successful and effective, you need to be passionate and excited about your job. You do not need to compromise your income, happiness, or free time to have an impact—indeed, the more you push yourself to sacrifice your own life for the greater good, the higher your risk of burnout.
If your current job doesn’t have the impact you want, if you’re unhappy in your current position, or if you’re just curious about what other activism jobs are out there, we highly recommend reading the 80,000 Hours career guide. Indeed, the guide has helped the primary author transform this research from a personal project exploring how to have the most impact as an individual into this effort to help you and other activists be more effective at creating change. We’re grateful for the free resource and think you might find it impactful, as well. The guide is available at: https://80000hours.org
Another excellent resource is the book The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way, a 2006 book by Hillary Rettig. This book, which Rettig uploaded in its entirety online for free, helps activists manage their missions, time, fears, relationships with themselves, and relationships with others to prevent burnout and foster lifelong activism. This is an excellent resource for those feeling the symptoms of burnout, or for those wishing to strengthen their commitments to activism. You may wish to read the book as you conduct your career planning to help you deeply examine what you need in order to engage in activism long-term. The Lifelong Activist is available at: http://lifelongactivist.com/
Give what you can to effective charities and progressive organizations
Those of us with experience in nonprofits and progressive organizations know that our work is often limited by available funding. Donating to good causes can greatly increase the capacity for progressive change, and can allow you to help with issue areas that you’re unable to do direct work in. For those with high salaries, donating can also be extremely efficient—for organizations with a backlog of willing volunteers, donating one hour’s worth of your wages can sometimes help much more than one hour of your time.
Which charities and organizations should you give to? Interestingly, research has found that the best charities are over 10 times more cost-effective than the average charity, and 15,000 times more cost-effective than the lowest performing charity. Choosing a highly effective organization to donate to can greatly increase your impact.
Let’s consider health spending. How much money would you donate if you knew you could save someone’s life? In the U.S., the average cost of saving a life is one million dollars. This figure is so high because the U.S. already has a very high life expectancy due to advances in nutrition and sanitation. Using high-tech medical interventions and advanced medications to combat the most difficult-to-treat diseases and prolong already-long lives even further is extremely expensive. This isn’t to say that saving lives in the U.S. is not worthwhile, just that you usually need to be a very high earner in order to have impactful donations in this field.
How does this compare to health-related charities in other parts of the globe? In the poorest countries, many children and adults die from easily preventable illnesses. In 2015, there were 429,000 deaths from malaria, 92% of which occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. It does not take expensive or complicated technology to save a life here—simply providing bed nets to protect against the mosquito bites that cause malaria can greatly reduce the death rate. It is estimated that the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides insecticidal nets to at-risk individuals at the cost of around $5 per net, can save one human life for every donation of $7,500.
If you earn the average income of a college degree holder—around $70,000 per year—and you donated just to 10% of your income every year to the Against Malaria Foundation, you would donate almost enough to save one life every year. If you donated every penny you earned, it would take you around six weeks of working to generate the income needed to save a life. Can you imagine undertaking an activist campaign for only six weeks and being guaranteed to save a life? Many of us toil for years with no guarantee of an impact. Even if you only donated 1% of your income every year—just a few hundred dollars every year—at the end of your 40-year career, you would have saved three human lives.
The higher your salary, the more potential impact you have. At a starting salary of around $120,000, one entry-level Google engineer who donates just 10% of their annual income over the course of their career could donate enough to save 64 lives—and still have over $100,000 to live on themselves (which is more than 99.9% of the globe’s population lives on).
We do not know of any other activist actions that are so easy and that can be carried out by almost anyone, regardless of your background, skills, or experiences, that will be guaranteed to save a life.
Giving What We Can is an organization founded by the individuals who learned about how cheap and easy it is to save lives through donations to highly effective charities. They decided to pledge a portion of their income every year to the most impactful causes, ensuring their work will lead to longer, healthier, and happier lives around the globe. You can pledge to donate 1% of your income if you are student or unemployed and 10% of your income if you have a steady job. You can learn more about the world’s most effective charities and take the Giving What We Can pledge at the following link: https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/
What if you could donate an even larger chunk of your salary to progressive causes without having to sacrifice any of your income? Let’s think about where your income usually goes.
Most people’s largest expense every month is housing, with over a third of U.S. household heads renting. The traditional advice is that you should be spending around 30% of your income on rent, but one new study estimates that millennials are paying up to 45% of their income towards rent. This means that, every month, tens of millions of people are signing off up to half of their income just to secure shelter.
The next largest expense is usually food, with 10-34% of our incomes towards eating. Many of us in western countries buy our food at national or multinational grocery chains, whose CEOs usually earn millions of dollars every single year.
How can it be that we’re apprehensive about donating 10% or even 1% of our income to effective charities working to save children’s lives, but siphoning off 40-80% of our income every single month to people and companies who are much wealthier than us and whose entire jobs consist of profiting off people’s needs for shelter and food is par for the course?
Creatively leveraging your normal bills can transform your largest monthly expenses into donations to local nonprofits that build community power, while often allowing you to reduce your normal bills.
Living in a member-owned housing cooperative, co-housing community, or other intentional community makes every monthly rent or mortgage payment a charitable donation. Buying your groceries and goods at a food co-op, retail co-op, buying club, or other not-for-profit business makes every grocery run an investment in community infrastructure.
Cooperatives are organizations run by their members, for their members. While the goal of a landlord or property management company is to make money off of their tenants’ needs for housing, and the goal of a grocery store is to make money off of community members’ needs for food, the goal of a cooperative is to help its members. Cooperatives—made up only of their own members, not by distant individuals extracting profit from the group—provide affordable, healthy, and sustainable services to their members, while also halting the imbalanced upward flow of wealth that strips low-income people of financial security.
Since cooperatives do not have a profit motive, they are often extraordinarily affordable. Joining a cooperative not only builds community infrastructure that nourishes community members and protects community wealth, it can also drastically reduce your monthly expenses (with no wealthy CEO sucking up the extra profits, costs are usually much lower), leaving you extra income to take care of your family or donate to charity.
Regardless of your income level, joining a cooperative can help you save money while contributing to a good cause. If you are lucky enough to have a high enough income that you can afford property, you can still donate to housing cooperatives and shop at food and retail cooperatives to keep your wealth local and support your community.
 Chen and Gorski 2015; Gorski and Chen 2015; Rodgers 2010
 Ord 2013
 Hall and Jones 2007
 World Health Organization 2016
 80,000 Hours 2018
 Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018
 Calculated with Giving What We Can’s “How Rich Am I?” calculator, available at: https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i/
 Cilluffo, Geiger, and Fry 2017
 Sarac 2018
 U.S. Department of Agriculture n.d.
 Blair 2010
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