You Don't Need to Join Wall Street to "Save The World"

Dylan Matthews' Washington Post piece on high-earning millennials' charitable giving patterns is fascinating and incredibly well written – you should read it right now. It highlights a palpable tension that infects the thoughts and conversations of many millennials: how do we do the most good?

I've had the familiar debate over and over again, with myself, friends, and family, and I don't think there's a clear answer. But I want to challenge the implicit assumption that simply giving as much money as possible is the best route for passionate, intelligent millennials to contribute; I think that their minds and their skills are often more valuable for organizations than their cash, and that what they're giving up may not be worth the cost. Don't join Wall Street to save the world.

Matthews' article centers on Jason Trigg, a 25-year old hedge fund analyst who made a conscious decision to work in that high-paying sector with the goal of making as much money as possible – so that he can give "half of a high finance salary" to the Against Malaria Foundation. In doing so, he believes he is able to "' … make more of a difference'" than a Peace Corps volunteer. Similarly minded individuals are interviewed throughout, and the nascent, en vogue charity-rating organizations and NGOs GiveWell, Giving What We Can, and GiveDirectly are discussed, too.

The article is partly philosophical, drawing on Peter Singers' utilitarian "save a life if you can" thought experiment, but we can leave that aside for this post, and assume that many millennials share a passion and commitment to give back.

In the most obvious sense, what the profiled individuals are doing is commendable, and to have more of our generation contributing similarly would be a wonderful thing. Trigg and the others seem to care deeply about the causes they support and are very interested in maximizing their ability to "do good."

But in another sense: what a waste! Time, passion, and intelligence go into a hedge fund, a (rather large) burlap sack full of money comes out, and a portion of that money goes to an important charitable organization.

Is there a way for Trigg to be more valuable to the organizations he donates to? Couldn't AMF, and myriad other organizations, use his intelligence and passion directly? As a member of their team, it's possible that he'd be worth substantially more to them – and the world – than $20,000. Maybe he creates an algorithm that solves a thorny issue AMF has faced, or works on a computer model that somehow reduces the cost to save a child's life by 20%. Who knows – but that's precisely the point.

That's a bit simplistic, I realize. Many who work for a hedge fund, Goldman Sachs, or Google do so because they love their job, and not everyone who wants to "do good" can work for AMF or another NGO.

Even if they could, as Matthews notes, it's an open question as to whether they'd just be better off giving money unconditionally, as in the GiveDirectly model; recent research by Chris Blattman showed that unconditional cash transfers are an effective way to boost economic growth and make the lives of the poor better. If individuals don't have skills that could be useful for organizations like AMF, giving as much money as they can may be the best route.

But that's a big if, and Trigg still has decided to donate to AMF, a preference that indicates he values "typical" NGO work. It still seems to me that with a few modest tweaks to the system, skilled workers like Trigg would find it a better solution to "give directly" to AMF and others by working – directly – with them. 

One such (admittedly unlikely) tweak would be for hedge funds and other high-paying corporations to "sponsor" individuals to work at AMF and other NGOs – but rather than sponsor the role, as in a typical fellowship, they sponsored the donation. In effect, they'd pay the psychic cost for people like Trigg being unable to donate tens of thousands of dollars.

Another route would look similar to the Thiel Fellowship or MacArthur Genius Grant, where individuals are given money to pursue a cause that's seen to be in the public good. Call it the Hedge Fund Sabbatical, where hedge funds could contribute to a fund that pays for their employees to take a year to work at a non-profit they're aligned with.

A final, more conventional route would be for Trigg and others to make a public pledge (perhaps using Dean Karlan's StickK online commitment website) to raise a set amount of money from friends and family, so that they can work in the NGO space without feeling guilty about being unable to donate; their friends and family would cover that psychic cost.

None of this is meant to disparage the choices of anyone profiled in the piece, or to question their commitment to choosing a life that puts others at center. But I think it's worth questioning the premise that the best way for a passionate, intelligent person to give back is by extracting money out of for-profit corporations.

Don't join Wall Street to save the world. What you'll give up – time, intelligence, and passion – may not be worth the cost.