A Lesson on Giving Well


Last spring I met a man whose mother raised a servant. Hakim, at 24, went home each night, set down his backpack, and put off his school work to feed and care for his mother. This wasn’t his only option in life: he’d recently turned down a good job offer on the other side of the city because it would be too far from home. His girlfriend wished he could go out for dinner more nights. But for Hakim, dinner was pork on rice or pork on noodles with his mother, and he made it every night.

When I first asked Hakim why he didn’t take the better job, he said of course he wanted to. He couldn’t take that job because he owed his mother more than that. She had slaved for years through his childhood, feeding him good meals each day. She provided a home with a roof over his head. She taught him to talk and how to behave. She sat through his fits. She put him to bed.

Here was a woman who’d given him life itself. He didn’t just owe her a visit. He owed her everything.

This conversation immediately filled me with intense guilt. My own mother, at that moment, was letting me study 9,000 miles away in Singapore. I hadn’t called home in weeks.


When I was born I never signed a contract. Everything my parents gave me, they gave me unconditionally. The arm of the law would has no retribution if I packed up right now and never spoke to my parents again.

Familial duty is something beyond that. It is the recognition of the love and care my family gave to me. It’s a token of gratitude. It’s the realization that I will one day be in their position, upset by the fact that I won’t get a moment’s consideration among the busy lives of my children.

Thinking about this, though, quickly becomes overwhelming. Attempting to pay our parents back for what they’ve given us is a slippery slope that ends in the realization that the debt we owe to our parents is infinite. If they gave me two decades of care when they raised me, should I forego the nursing home and give them one decade of care in-home? How far does this go?

There are enormous differences in how people and cultures view the duty we have to those who raised us. But I think most people do agree on a few things:

1. Everyone, by simply being born, has some obligation to spend time with and help their family.
2. This obligation shouldn’t be all-consuming.
3. The only way to answer the question of “Am I doing enough?” is to put yourself in the their shoes, and to answer “Am I content to live in a world where everyone does as much as me?”


When talking about charitable giving, I often hear the argument that the only reason anyone gives to charity is to make themselves feel good. It’s true that there are dozens of controlled studies that show giving disposable income away makes you happier than spending it on yourself. But this is far and away from the only reason one should give.

We are only able to live the lives we are living by taking part in a society that’s given us so much. Access to clean water, power, internet, and education are benefits we’ve gained by mere virtue of being born in a place where these things are given unconditionally. When receiving a gift so grand from the world, it seems natural and obvious that we should do our best to pay it back. The act of donation fulfills a real and necessary obligation.

This line of thinking, I think, is often met with derision because it, too, is a slippery slope. After all, if I really wanted to do the most good I could with my money, I would be donating nearly everything, living in destitution as I strive to pay back my infinite societal debt.

To this, I can only give the same rebuttal that I gave to Hakim: I should act as a member of the kind of world I want to live in. Perfection, they say, is the enemy of good, and my ideal world is not filled with perfect people who have a crippling need to give everything. But it is a world where we should feel a need to give something.

In trying to figure out what to give in that world we want to live in, it’s helpful to look at the world we do live in. In the US, the average person donates roughly 3% of their income to charitable causes. Those least able to give tend to be those who give the most, with the poorest 20% of Americans giving 4.6% of their income, and the richest 20% giving 2.2%. This divide is even more extreme in the Greater Boston Area, where those earning less than $25,000 per year donate an astounding 14.5% of it, while those earning $50,000 to $100,000 donate less than 2.1%. [source: https://philanthropy.com/interactives/how-america-gives#msa/14460]


Ultimately, the question just as important as “How much should I give?” is “Who should I give to?” This personal question often has personal answers. It is common, for instance, to give money in return to places that have supported you: a donation to Olin College or to the Girl Scout troop in your home town. It is also common to give money in support of issues you feel personally connected with.

A different kind of giving, encouraged by a growing movement called Effective Altruism, simply tries to do the most good for the most people with each dollar. Effective Altruism focuses on charities with evidence of good deeds done, rejecting the notion that all charities are created equal.

The fact is, there are some charities which are hundreds of times more effective than others. Take, for example, the issue of blindness. Many guide dog training schools are funded by charitable donations, and of course they are all doing a good thing. But the cost of training a guide dog and its recipient is about $40,000. On the other hand, around the world, there are 1.2 million people who are completely blind due to trachoma. Curing a child of blindness from trachoma, including delivery, administration, and overhead, costs less than $50. Curing an adult can cost less than half that. For the cost of providing a guide dog for one blind person, the Fred Hallows Foundation (operating in Rwanda, Palestine, Myanmar, and Bangladesh), can fully cure blindness for 800 children.

This reflects a common trend where the charities doing the most good are also the ones helping those who need it the most: those in deeply impoverished areas, often those living on less than a dollar a day.

GiveWell is a juggernaut of an organization which attempts to find the charities who are most effective. Their research is extensive, and all freely available at givewell.org

They currently recommends four top charities:

The Against Malaria Foundation, GiveWell’s top choice, provides funding for long-lasting insecticide-treated net distributions for protection against malaria in developing countries.
GiveDirectly transfers cash to households in developing countries via mobile phone-linked payment services.
Schistosomiasis Control Initiative fights a neglected tropical disease in Sub-Saharan Africa which impacts children’s ability to stay in school, and commonly causes long-term developmental problems.
Deworm the World Initiative fights for the same cause as SCI in developing nations worldwide. DtWI focuses on advocacy and technical assistance to governments.

While I certainly encourage anyone to donate to these particular charities, I more emphatically encourage you to actively dig into GiveWell’s discussions of the issues, find effective causes that you support, and direct your passion toward them.

Giving to charity is certainly not the only way to give back. It’s arguably the least personal. But it fills an incredibly important need. These charities are run by people who understand these issues closely. They have proven themselves to be powerful producers of societal benefits. Giving back to these causes is a fundamental first step.


Hakim now lives with his girlfriend, in an apartment two floors down from his mother. I now call my parents every week. Both of us, I think, are content to live in worlds where everyone does the same.

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