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Q&A Series:

To save or donate? That is the question.

While vacuuming my apartment the other day, I was thinking about one of the toughest problems we all face as donors, or potential donors — how to balance our desire to save for the future with our desire to help now. The process of vacuuming didn’t solve this complex issue, but I had what I thought was a highly relevant insight. Please bear with me while I explain the connection.

When I started vacuuming, I was in a kind of a lousy mood — nothing in particular, just one of those days. But the more I vacuumed, the better my mood became! That phenomena was interesting to me. And being the psychologist I was trained to be, I examined why my mood improved — and in fact, why I almost always find vacuuming super satisfying. Here’s the answer. Vacuuming with my cordless, lightweight, crazy-easy-to-use vacuum meets two of my three criteria for activities I actively seek during this “leaning back” period of my life. Number one, it is relatively effortless (remember: no cords). And, number two, it is highly impactful. I could watch all the popcorn crumbs and dust disappear magically into my vacuum with almost no effort on my part — WOW! 

How does the joy I get from vacuuming relate to the question of saving for the future or helping reduce unnecessary suffering and empower livelihoods now? In some ways, donating money to help people living in extreme poverty is almost the polar opposite of vacuuming. It takes a great deal of effort to part with money that we are worried we might need in the future — whether it be for our children’s education, or the “leaning back” phase of life (i.e., retirement), or serious health issues and care that may arise unexpectedly. Even more to the point, despite the amazing actual impact of giving, the perceived impact can be very abstract and therefore may not immediately appear to be great. Watching popcorn and dust disappear into one’s vacuum matters dramatically less than donating to highly effective nonprofits. But it does give one a sense of immediate impact!

As I was reflecting on these differences between my perceived experience of donating and of vacuuming, I wondered what steps I could take to make donating feel more immediately impactful to me — in other words, more like vacuuming. And it seemed like the first step would be to learn more about the actual impact my donations would have, which would then help me perceive my impact as more immediate and concrete as I balanced donating now or saving for later. 

Fortunately, research resources like our Impact Calculator and our Best Charities page are designed to help you visualize the real, immediate impact of your donations to our recommended charities more clearly. And media resources like Peter Singer’s TED Talk or our powerful short film “Girl in the Pond” (both of which can be found on our homepage) capture the moral urgency of helping those in need now in immediate, concrete terms.

One effective way to discipline yourself to donate is to take our pledge: use our tools to calculate your suggested annual giving amount, take our pledge, and commit yourself to annually donate a specific minimum amount based on your income. Our pledge is designed to make it easier to balance your future goals with annual giving. It may feel like a lot to give, especially if you have a large income. But always remember the impact — not popcorn going into a vacuum, but saving real lives, reducing very real suffering, and helping others become self-sufficient and escape extreme poverty! 

How much should I give per year?

The decision about how much to save versus how much to donate now will always be difficult. There are no easy answers. But knowing the actual impact —really feeling it —will likely help you be more generous now. You will still want to save, but you will be looking at that compared to actually saving lives. Donating generously feels even better than vacuuming — really!

Make a Donation

Do Good. Feel Good.

Charlie Bresler

Board Member of The Life You Can Save

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