Give now, not later

September 18, 2021

If you’re interested in giving to charity, you should give now instead of later.

I give at least 10% of my income to charity each month. When a friend found out that I do this, he said that a better approach would be to save and invest that money, and then bequeath the compounded sum to charity after death. I disagree – giving now instead of giving later is better for a few reasons.

Prevention instead of mitigation

First, many charitable organizations focus on preventing harm instead of mitigating it. This matters because many harms compound faster than money does in an investment account. For example, the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) works to prevent lead exposure, which is known to cause an array of harms. Because LEEP focuses on prevention instead of mitigation, they’re able to be orders of magnitude more cost-effective than the alternative. You’re a lot better off just keeping lead out of kids’ blood than you are trying to fix the problems some decades down the line.

When I think about giving, I think about giant sequoia stumps. In the 1800s, people cut down giant sequoias that had grown for thousands of years. Once they were cut, there was no going back – no amount of prioritization or mitigation brings those ancient trees back to life. Many things work the same way, where harm is easy to cause (and prevent) but difficult or impossible to reverse.

Are you sure you’ll give in the future?

Another reason to give now is just to have certainty that you actually will give. Are you sure you’ll give in the future? You don’t know how you’ll change. If you care about giving now, it’s smart to hedge against the possibility of a less enthusiastic future self, or worse, the possibility that you’ll turn into a bona fide asshole. It happens to a lot of people!

Building a habit of giving

Giving regularly now also helps build a habit of giving. When you make giving a habit, you’re not just hedging against some future self that won’t give, you’re actively changing yourself into a person who does give in the future.

There are secondary benefits to having a habit of giving. I personally have gotten better at finding promising organizations (like LEEP). I’m also more thoughtful about the way I spend money, and I find that I’m now on average happier with the things I do buy.

If you’re interested in giving now and building a habit of giving, you can join Giving What We Can. I joined in 2019, and I’ve been very happy with the decision.