Optimizing Fuzzies And Utilons: The Altruism Chip Jar

by orthonormal2 min read1st Jan 201149 comments


Effective AltruismMotivationsPracticalWorld Optimization

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.