Charity hacks

Most of these hacks have made me personally happier, and not just by providing me with more money to donate. They make me feel more in control of my life, more efficient with my resources. Viewing money as potential lives saved can be sobering and guilt-inducing, but it can also be empowering. I enjoy what I have so much more when I know what it’s worth, and I especially enjoy using what money I can to its utmost to improve somebody’s life.

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Before I first heard of effective altruism, I didn’t think giving money would be a big thing in my life. I thought my positive impact would come from elsewhere– doing science, not eating animals, doing my civic duty and trying to get the government to prioritize foreign aid more. I hadn’t given the economics of charity enough serious thought. I didn’t grok that money = lives.

 I might not have been ready for the Giving What We Can pledge right away, but understanding the power of money immediately prompted me to make a lot of little changes. Most of these are minor organizational norms that I already knew would be good for me, but had been too lazy to implement before. Here’s a list of practically effortless things you can do to increase the amount of money you re-direct to effective charities:

1. Use AmazonSmile

Set your amazon smile account to an effective charity. This takes less than a minute and donates 0.5% of your purchases to your charity. To pick an effective charity, go to GiveWell, The Life You Can Save, Giving What We Can, or Animal Charity Evaluators and check out their top charities. Install the Smile Redirect browser extension for Firefox and Smile Always for Chrome to automatically redirect amazon.com to smile.amazon.com so you don’t have to remember.

I do something like 90% of my non-food shopping on Amazon. In July, I spent $250 on amazon smile eligible purchases, so $1.25 went to Mercy For Animals. So for me this is an extra $15 or so that goes to Mercy for Animals each year. This is already excellent since setting up AmazonSmile takes less than a minute and costs nothing at all for the customer.  But it’s especially excellent when you realize what $15 can do put to an effective use. Mercy for Animals saves something like 9 animals/$1 (conservatively) from a life of factory farming, so in the seconds it took me to set up AmazonSmile, I set myself up to save an estimated 135 animals a year!

2. Cancel cable, magazine subscriptions, or other under-utilized services and give the money to charity.

Do you  still have cable even though you mostly watch Netflix and HBOGO these days? Can you not be bothered to stop your Atlantic subscription, even though you never read the print edition, anyway? Bite the bullet and cancel it. You will probably feel instantly better about reducing clutter and distraction in your house.  You already budgeted for this subscription, so you know what it feels like to part with that money each month.

When we canceled our cable in April 2015, I started a $50/month recurring donation to Against Malaria Foundation instead. Since then, I’ve given $750 in recurring donations (more in one time donations, like from the activities below) in lieu of cable. At an estimated $4.47 per insecticide-treated bednet in Uganda, where my nets have gone, that means I’ve distributed 167 nets from my cable money alone. Each net protects two people for 4 years— that’s 670 years of malaria protection! If I gave nothing but $50/month for the next 6 years, I would “statistically” have saved a life from malaria –meaning that I would be responsible for saving 80 QALYs (Quality Adjusted Life Years)– so, saving one  child or several adults from dying of malaria.

Plus, selfishly, I am extending my own life by being less inclined to laze around on the couch watching whatever’s on. I have to make a deliberate choice to watch something. My level of Netflix Indecision has probably risen, though, so it might be a wash…

3. If a friend needs a paid favor, such as baby-, dog-, or housesitting, do it gladly and give the proceeds to charity.

This is basically turning favors for your loved ones into effective charity. These jobs really are best done by someone close to to the client, someone they trust in their house with their dependents, but it’s unlikely that anyone in their circle of friends is a professional sitter. Your friend will pay you, since you’re going to some trouble to help them, but these jobs are usually done more out of affection than any desire for the money. I used to feel conflicted and a bit put-upon by these requests. On the one hand, I like taking care of dogs and babies. On the other, I get kind of stressed out about the extra planning and responsibilities. I would do it for my friends out of love and a desire to help, but I couldn’t even really feel good about that because it seemed like it was taking away from more concentrated efforts at doing good.

Now I feel no conflict at all, because I can just give the money to charity. Instead of distributing anti-Schistosome pills in sub-Saharan Africa, I can earn $60 to cuddle and read stories to a one-year-old for an evening and pay for Schistosomaiasis Control Initiative to distribute 120 pills. Instead of going undercover in a factory farm, I can play with and a walk a dog for a week and pay for Mercy for Animals to run a sting operation.

4. Set up a MyGiving account.

This one doesn’t directly increase your donations, but it makes keeping track of your donations and your impact way easier. It’s a godsend at tax time. I won’t say it’s easy to claim deductions, but MyGiving from Giving What We Can makes it manageable, and paying less in taxes = more money  to donate.

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MyGiving shows you a pie chart of your donations and lets you know the outcomes of your gifts in terms of bednets distributed, pills distributed, etc.

You don’t have to have taken the Giving What We Can Pledge to use MyGiving, but if you have, MyGiving shows you your progress toward that goal.

5. Shop used clothes online.

I have always loved the idea of secondhand clothes shopping, but the reality usually fell short. It’s hard to find small sizes, for one thing, and it seems like the cute stuff always gets snatched up by regulars before I ever see it. I like having stuff, but I don’t really like the experience of shopping. Usually, I am prompted go shopping because I really need a particular thing, and you can never count on secondhand shops to have what you need.

ThredUp is secondhand stuff but online shopping. You can both consign clothes by mailing them in (they must be certain brands, though) and buy clothes at secondhand rates. You can check the site to see all the features, but my favorite is that you can make sure you are seeing only your sizes– and they have plenty of smalls! In my first order, I got 16 items for $64, and ended up returning one for a full refund (you have two weeks to return clothes no questions asked, with free shipping). I will definitely buy more clothes because ThredUp exists, but I may end up spending less money than I did before and I will definitely look better.

6. Sell your hair.

This one is a bit quirkier and not an option for everyone. But if you, reader, are like me and get one big haircut every couple years, hear me out. I let my hair grow really long and don’t use products on it or heat dry very often. Unintentionally, I was following the best practices for hair cropping. It’s naturally straight, smooth, and tidy, so the length doesn’t start to be an annoyance until my hair is too heavy, which is quite an advanced length! I used to donate a foot+ to Locks for Love every few years. They either sell the hair themselves to cover overhead costs or use it to make about a third of a wig.

The last time I was ready for a big cut, I went to the extra effort of holding on to the amputated ponytail for a while and listing it on buyandsellhair.com:

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I ended up getting $310 for it, and probably could have gotten more if I had been willing to haggle more aggressively and pit buyers against one another. I also could have improved my yield if I had taken better before and after photos or remembered to have the ends trimmed first. After covering the haircut, the cost of the listing ($15 for three months) and shipping the hair, I had $250 to donate to Against Malaria Foundation! Again, for that money AMF distributes an estimated 56 nets in Uganda, each of which protect 2 people from malaria for 4 years. Giving a child with alopecia a wig is a wonderful thing to do, and far better than letting the hair get swept into the trash. But protecting 112 children from getting infected with malaria with the same hair and some extra emails is the obvious winner. Plus, I got this great story for parties.

7. Have groceries delivered; eat more meals at home.

This is another one that may not apply to a lot of people, but some people who could benefit from having groceries delivered don’t think of it. It seems kind of decadent, doesn’t it? But if you live in a city, don’t have a car, or don’t have a lot of time, a delivery fee can be well worth the time and effort saved.

I shop at Market Basket in Somerville, MA via Instacart. There is a $5.99 delivery fee for most times of day, and I give a 15% tip. Imagine if someone offered you $18 to spend an hour and a half walking to the store, picking out items, and then carrying them back home– would you think it was worth it? If not, then why would you go to all that hassle just to save $18? I grant that this isn’t an obvious choice– it depends on your preferences and your needs. But if you eat out one or two fewer times a week because it was easier to get groceries, the delivery pays for itself.

On top of the fees, Market Basket items are marked-up online compared to in-store prices (some stores have the same prices in-store and on Instacart), but it is still cheaper for me to shop there than at any of my nearby grocery stores in Beacon Hill. I comparison shop online more thoroughly than I ever did in-store, and I’m able to plan inventory in much greater detail. I can consult cookbooks instead of risking forgetting that one ingredient when I go to the store with a transcribed list in hand. I have a record of all my purchases in one convenient place. And the delivery people even walk up three flights of stairs to my apartment to bring me the bags!

Ever since I worked out this grocery delivery routine, I have been much better about planning my meals at home. Having the groceries around without having to go buy them myself also gives me more time to cook, which I find fun and relaxing. I used to fill in the gaps with takeout more than I like to admit, 90% out of laziness. I don’t even prefer restaurant food in most cases! I just dreaded going to the store because it was a hassle, and so I wouldn’t have the cheaper food that I liked better around the house. Cheaper food = more money to donate.


For an ethical eating home run, check out recipes from my friend Lucia’s blog, EA Tasty, where each recipe is rated on five ethical dimensions:

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Most of these hacks have made me personally happier, and not just by providing me with more money to donate. They make me feel more in control of my life, more efficient with my resources. Viewing money as potential lives saved can be sobering and guilt-inducing, but it can also be empowering. I enjoy what I have so much more when I know what it’s worth, and I especially enjoy using what money I can to its utmost to improve somebody’s life.

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