Optimizing Fuzzies And Utilons: The Altruism Chip Jar

Re­lated: Pur­chase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately

We gen­uinely want to do good in the world; but also, we want to feel as if we’re do­ing good, via heuris­tics that have been ham­mered into our brains over the course of our so­cial evolu­tion. The in­ter­ac­tion be­tween these im­pulses (in ar­eas like scope in­sen­si­tivity, re­fusal to quan­tify sa­cred val­ues, etc.) can lead to mas­sive diminu­tion of char­i­ta­ble im­pact, and can also suck the fun out of the whole pro­cess. Even if it’s much bet­ter to write a big check at the end of the year to the char­ity with the great­est ex­pected im­pact than it is to take off work ev­ery Thurs­day af­ter­noon and vol­un­teer at the pet pound, it sure doesn’t feel as re­ward­ing. And of course, we’re very good at find­ing ex­cuses to stop do­ing costly things that don’t feel re­ward­ing, or at least to put them off.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that lament­ing our ir­ra­tional­ity should wait un­til one’s prop­erly searched for a good hack. And I think I’ve found one.

Not just that, but I’ve tested it out for you already.

This sum­mer, I had just gone through the usual ex­pe­rience of be­ing asked for money for a nice but in­effi­cient cause, turn­ing them down, and feel­ing a bit bad about it. I made a men­tal note to donate some money to a more effi­cient cause, but wor­ried that I’d for­get about it; it’s too much work to make a bunch of small dona­tions over the year (plus, if done by credit card, the fees take a big­ger cut that way) and there’s no way I’d re­mem­ber that day at the end of the year.

Un­less, that is, I found some way to keep track of it.

So I made up sev­eral jars with the names of char­i­ties I found effi­cient (SIAI and VillageReach) and kept a bunch of poker chips near them. Start­ing then, when­ever I felt like do­ing a good deed (and es­pe­cially if I’d passed up an op­por­tu­nity to do a less effi­cient one), I’d take a chip of an ap­pro­pri­ate value and toss it in the jar of my choice. I have to say, this gave me much more in the way of warm fuzzies than if I’d just waited and made up a num­ber at the end of the year.

And now I’ve added up and made my con­tri­bu­tions: $1,370 to SIAI and $566 to VillageReach.

A cou­ple of notes:

  • I do think it was a good idea in prac­tice to di­ver­sify my port­fo­lio (de­spite the usual ad­mo­ni­tions to the con­trary) be­cause it ap­peared to in­crease my char­ity bud­get rather than di­vert a fixed one. Some days I just didn’t feel as op­ti­mistic about the SIAI, and on those days I could still chip in to save lives in the Third World. As long as my differ­ent jars seem to be in­terfer­ing con­struc­tively rather than de­struc­tively, I’ll keep them.

  • In terms of warm fuzzies, I re­ally en­joy that this sys­tem makes giv­ing more tan­gible than writ­ing a check or filling out an on­line form. It even helps that I have the weighted clay chips- toss­ing those into a jar feels as if I’m ac­tu­ally do­ing some­thing.

  • I do worry about do­ing my good deed for the day and hav­ing nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ities flow from that, so I do my donat­ing at the end of the day to min­i­mize the effect.

  • I could eas­ily af­ford to give more than this, ac­tu­ally (though I can’t tell whether I would have– it’s more than I donated to char­ity in any pre­vi­ous year, al­though I was a poor grad stu­dent un­til this fall); I’m go­ing to see if that knowl­edge makes me in­crease my pace of giv­ing next year. (UPDATE 8/​19/​14: In ret­ro­spect, it was much more im­por­tant for my less wealthy past self to cre­ate a habit than for him to donate a sig­nifi­cant frac­tion of his in­come. My con­tri­bu­tions to the chip jar since then have scaled ap­pro­pri­ately to my cir­cum­stances.)

Let me know if you start try­ing this out, or if you have any sug­gested im­prove­ments on it. In any case, may your al­tru­ism be effec­tive and full of fuzzies!

ADDED 12/​26/​13: I’ve con­tinued to use this habit, and I still to­tally en­dorse it! A few ad­denda:

  • I’ve now la­beled the jars “Max­i­mally Effec­tive Altru­ism” and “Directly Helping Peo­ple Now”, and I wait to de­cide where to di­rect each of those jars un­til I’m ready to make my dona­tions.

  • One lit­tle fuzzy bonus: I find it pretty fulfilling through­out the year when­ever I have to con­soli­date my lower-de­nom­i­na­tion chips into larger-de­nom­i­na­tion ones.

  • If you’re new to the idea of effec­tive al­tru­ism (aiming not sim­ply to do good for the world, but to try and do the most good pos­si­ble (in ex­pected value) with your dona­tion), this es­say is an awe­some in­tro­duc­tion, and or­ga­ni­za­tions like GiveWell and Giv­ing What We Can ex­ist to help make it eas­ier.