Something’s Gotta Give
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Student donors won’t let their elite confines stop them from saving the world.
By Bella DeVaan.
This year alone, 242 members of the Columbia community pledged — that’s $133K in new yearly donations to support some of the most effective charities in the world.
Through their pledge, they committed to helping some of the most unfortunate people in the world. They committed to saving children from suffering and dying from preventable diseases. They committed to eradicating malaria. They committed to ending extreme poverty.
And we want to celebrate that. We want to thank everyone who pledged, and all the students who have been raising awareness about those causes at Columbia One for the World. And we want to PARTY TOGETHER.
We hope to see you all. Bring some booze and some grooveee amigos!!! ♥
On May 4, 2019, students flocked to the rooftop of 196 Stanton St. It was time to revel with Columbia’s premiere effective altruism club. Guests brandished “I GAVE 1%” signs in front of a step-and-repeat, smiling for the cameras. If you weren’t in attendance, you might have seen the same signs on College Walk, flanked by others reading “Research shows that giving makes you happier” and members eager to help you to Take The Pledge.
At Columbia, giving is common practice. Some students support small clubs with a few spare dollars; others vow lifelong fealty to the endowment. Sorority and fraternity members meet their philanthropic quotas for the privilege of attending formals. Not all Columbia gatherings have a charitable imperative, nor do they need to. But many happen in the name of one. Paying to watch DSig freshmen gyrate to Fergie at Anchor Splash is not exactly the most efficient way to raise money for the blind, but it is a way nonetheless.
Once, when I was a first-year, I worked the door at a big campus party. An upperclassman challenged me to raise as much money as I could from people eager to get in. I should just pick a random charity—and if they didn’t have cash, he winked, I should direct them to his Venmo. I meekly mentioned Save the Children a few times before feeling guilty and giving up. No one remembered once their Monclers were off and the drinks started flowing.
Natalie, a recent Columbia College grad and founder of an international education charity, is no stranger to the party-fundraiser. Snaps of international students cheers-ing in button-downs dapple her nonprofit’s Instagram. To execute these functions, Natalie negotiated free space rental and charged five dollars for entry. “When people go to events, they don’t necessarily go for the cause, but it’s a good way to bring people together, then catch them and make it known to them,” she said. “I always say a few sentences about what we’re there supporting. We’re not the biggest organization, but it helps.”
Putting the fun in fundraiser is a shrewd way to boost generosity. Experts assert that reputation and psychological benefits are two of the core mechanisms driving charitable giving. “Giving may contribute to one’s self-image as an altruistic, empathic, socially responsible, agreeable, or influential person,” scholars René Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking wrote in a renowned 2011 analysis. “Giving is in many cases an almost automatic emotional response, producing a positive mood, alleviating feelings of guilt, reducing aversive arousal, satisfying a desire to show gratitude, or to be a morally just person.” Stimulating this positivity in a group of people tethers social status to generosity. There’s a reason that throwing a party for philanthropy is one of the oldest plays in the noblesse oblige handbook.
But gone are the days of the “warm glow” of Stanton Street parties and Lerner ramp bake sales. The pandemic has put the kibosh on physical proximity, and in turn, the pomp and circumstance of campus charity events. It has also illuminated and deepened the chasms of inequality and racism in the student body. Deprived of campus cachet and relegated to life online, how are Columbia’s budding philanthropists going about doing good? And how are they gearing up to give into the future?
Illustration by Maya Weed
Charitable giving, in its most basic form, is a phenomenon of inequality. I have more, and you have less, so if I give you some, then you have more than before. The signature almsgiving, charity, and community association of the early United States mutated into our robust philanthropy system—a bloated expression of wealth inequality and plutocracy. “Philanthropy is commendable,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote. “But it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Funded by tax-exempt, perpetual endowments, non-profit foundations often exert private will in realms better addressed by public spending. So by tithing back money—perhaps made unethically—to ethical causes, plutocrats try to assuage the underclasses, making things just good enough to maintain the status quo. Philanthropy thus functions as a reputation launderer, in the writer Anand Giridharadas’ words, “making the arsonists look like firefighters.”
Tamara Mann Tweel’s American Studies seminar “Give It Away: The History and Ethics of Philanthropy” exposed a striking trend of giving in our country: People give away money how they made it. Carnegie systematized his charity the same way he vertically integrated steel, and today, the technologized, impact-leveraged philanthropy of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz mimics the cold, hard truth of a programming command. Giridharadas warns in his book Winners Take All that consulting and Big Tech use their “special way of chopping up problems, parsing data, and arriving at answers” to “construct authority” in the philanthropic landscape.
Analytical, technologized notions of impact drive effective altruism, One for the World’s value system. The effective altruism movement’s progenitor, Ted-Talking patriarch Peter Singer, encourages utilitarian giving to spare the largest number of lives on earth for the least amount of money. The club “asks students and alumni to donate 1% of their income to effective charities” with the goal of funding “nonprofits that provide basic healthcare and clean water to people living on less than $1.25 per day.” Launched by Wharton grads, OFTW touts their “rigorous process for evaluating non-profits” and support for “the most effective organizations in this space: The Against Malaria Foundation, GiveDirectly, Possible, Living Goods and Population Services International.”
A standard giving threshold for adult effective altruists is around 10% of one’s annual income, but One for the World encourages students to start now and pledge at least 1% to their leveraged causes. Since the average American gives 2.6% of their annual income to charity, and 1% given by enough people could eliminate global poverty by 2030, it is a compelling ask.
Natalie’s foundation is less ascetic in its commitment to effectiveness, but also believes money goes farther abroad. Natalie started the organization with high school friends back home in Germany, raising money to “alleviate poverty and hardship in South America and Asia through educational and vocational projects.” “We recognize,” their website reads, “that education is a key determinant of economic prosperity, and hope to act as a catalyst for the continuous improvement of quality of life and economic development in the aforementioned regions.” This global focus was driven in part by Natalie’s awareness of her own privilege. “My mom always wanted us to know how lucky we were to have access to education and how many girls around the world didn’t,” she said. Overall, Natalie tells me while commuting to her consulting job in Berlin, “no cause is worthier than another, but you have to focus on something because you can’t do everything.”
One for the World’s intellectual sibling, Columbia Effective Altruism, emphasizes theory more than practice. As part of their Arete Fellowship, students join a reading group designed to equip them with “the knowledge to do good in the world more effectively and the tools to think critically about their career ambitions.” Before talking global development, animal welfare, and existential risks, the fellows ponder work, or how the budding effective altruist can best live and fund their values.
The group’s syllabus directs students to 80,000 Hours, a career advice organization highlighting “priority paths” aligned with the logic of effective altruism. Alongside AI and biorisk research, grantmaking, and direct charity work is earning to give in a high-paying role, such as quantitative trading. In other words, a valid effective altruist makes as much money as they can—no matter how ethically unsavory their chosen field—to give away as much of it as they can.
In the past, EffectiveAltruism.org admits, “the community made the mistake of becoming too closely associated with ‘earning to give.’” But 80,000 Hours insists the organization does not advocate earning to give as the primary way of living effective altruist values; rather, 15-20% of the workforce should be engaging in that practice.
Barnard sophomore Jayne Magliocco’s nascent impact investing organization, Unpact Capital, hopes to equip students bound for “earning to give” financial sector work with a social conscience. In her native Fairfield, Connecticut, giving back was taught as checking a box. “Coming to college,” she recounts from her childhood bedroom, “I became really interested in how businesses can shape themselves to be more ethical and embrace the idea of giving back. Nonprofits are great, and tiny grassroots organizations make a huge local impact, but really, big corporations are king and dictate our lives—the way this country and the world moves—more than politics. ”
Magliocco considers Unpact’s deployment of business and quantitative analysis acumen the most powerful way to tackle systemic social issues. “It’s not us using a metal straw that’s going to change the way we look at sustainability. But if you have a major institution actively committed to a sustainable goal, that will change things. To say that an impact investing company can’t exist or that you can’t mix business and ethics is wrong because we literally have no other choice. You have to believe we can use capital for good reasons because we have to.” Unpact will eventually examine companies’ financials, management structure, accomplishments, and goals to determine if their investment would be both profitable and socially responsible. This practice will be the formal unpacking that leads to metaphorical undoing of corporate damage.
What One for the World, Columbia Effective Altruism, Natalie’s foundation, and Unpact share is their effort to acculturate students to giving, or to foster dialogue and social pressure to cement generosity as a tenet of meaningful life. One for the World and Columbia Effective Altruism want students to incorporate giving into their routines before they leave the University. Natalie emphasizes that the nonprofit’s founders added their tagline “by students, for students” after graduation, to make their work a “double-sided project, where you’re advocating for people to get involved in philanthropy earlier on rather than later.”
And Magliocco shares that Unpact hasn’t incorporated any funding yet because they are still deciding if they want to invest in companies or be more of an educational initiative. “Really, this organization is less about trading stocks and having a RobinHood account and is more about talking about values and how we can bring values into normal careers,” she said. “We recognize there’s a certain amount of privilege in being able to dedicate yourself to public service or work in impact-investing at a non-profit without the highest salary in the world. We recognize that a lot of people are going to go be analysts at big banks or traditional places but that they can keep their values in mind, no matter what job they have.”
Still, there are critics of these altruistic models across the political spectrum. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ken Berger and Robert M. Penna dubbed effective altruism “defective altruism,” excoriating the movement as “infused with logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it.” Pitting types of aid against one another, they argue, engenders a top-down technocratic system which doesn’t do much to foster social good or rewire systems to benefit more people. Conservatives like David Brooks and William Schambra also object to the internationalist and datafied methodology of this kind of philanthropy, championing “philanthrolocalism” instead of effective altruism’s “detached godliness.” I’m as shocked as the next person that I’m citing David Brooks, but he has a point, warning future effective altruists that “you might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around.”
In pandemic-stricken, gentrified New York City, immediate human needs abound. In Morningside Heights, organizations like Students Helping Students reveal how our wealthy University’s recent roiling inconsistencies and broken promises are jeopardizing our peers’ stability and solvency more starkly than ever. The group encourages cash donations to a general fund for mutual aid; so far, they have raised over $50,000 to meet students’ rent payments and foot grocery bills during the crisis.
Barnard junior Aimée Mehala observes wealthier Columbia students’ reticence to engage in local generosity. “When I was struggling, it was my working-class friends who lent me money while my rich friends stood by,” she said. “Working-class kids at Columbia send each other the same 20 bucks to help someone get out of the red or buy a meal. Just because we don’t look like the man outside Morton Williams doesn’t mean that there isn’t something going on. There are a lot of us rich cosplayers—kids that don’t come from a lot of money, maybe scholarship kids, who know how to act rich and navigate elite spaces, so no one bats an eye and no one has any idea that they’re probably struggling a lot.”
Mehala believes that a large issue with giving is students not realizing what they have to spare. “If your parents give you an allowance and your rent and food is paid for, that is disposable income. If you had a donation set for 20 bucks a month, you wouldn’t notice, and you would be saving someone’s life.”
To its credit, One for the World positions 1% as the floor, not the ceiling, for their Pledges—the point is to Pledge in the first place. Practitioners of both mutual aid and effective altruism, then, share an understanding that a little money can go a long way, and the most committed among them give plentifully and perpetually. Their key difference is the where.
“I think a lot of people write mutual aid off, thinking, ‘I don’t know where my money is going, I’m not Venmo-ing someone I’ve never met,’” Magliocco said, echoing a common source of skepticism. “People are very wary, and that’s why they’d rather donate to the NAACP, because they know it’s huge and that their money will have an impact. But if they knew they could donate to a community fridge, they would be happy to do it even if they’re not usually in social justice circles.”
But effective altruism is not set in its ways; the FAQ section on its eponymous website reminds readers that it’s “open-minded.” Elsewhere, it reads, “We should try to avoid being dogmatic or too wedded to a particular ideology. We should evaluate all claims about how to make a difference based on the available evidence. If there’s something we can do that seems likely to make a big net positive difference, then we should pursue it.”
This summer, Natalie’s foundation did just that, broadening their charter to encourage contributions to the racial justice movement. “Our mission is education, but this does connect.” Even though Natalie felt like her international background made it difficult to entrench herself in solving American problems, she said, “I felt so connected to the issue after my time in the U.S. for college.” The organization matched donations to Black Lives Matter and related nonprofits.
It was no surprise, then, when a little more than a year after their Stanton Street roof party, One for the World posted a Black Lives Matter solidarity statement—and expressed support for Chloe Cockburn’s work at the Open Philanthropy Project, a Dustin Moskovitz-funded endeavor that applies the evaluative ethic of effective altruism to more “speculative” social issues like criminal justice. A One for the World chapter at Amherst hosted a virtual talk with Cockburn, writing on Facebook: “for the effective giving community, the movement raised incredibly important questions: how do we value social injustice in the US and other developed countries against the terrible toll of extreme poverty? If we want to give effectively to social justice causes, where should we start? How can we use the effective giving and effective altruism movements to make positive change in an area that has traditionally seemed outside EA?”
To Mehala, none of these giving behaviors were revelatory—but they clearly were for some Columbia peers. “Black people have always experienced and participated in collectivism as a response to white supremacy,” she said. Whiter, wealthier students’ fresh grasp on mutual aid’s importance felt overdue.
People from many corners of Columbia rallied to donate. Even St. A’s created a public GoFundMe for the NAACP and Black Lives Matter’s New York Chapter, encouraging corporate contribution matching. Raising money was “the first step of a much larger journey… in pursuit of a more diverse and inclusive future”—accompanied by an impulse to look inward.
“We are thankful that united through siblinghood, we are able to tackle these tough issues together, and are keen to hear any suggestions for further initiatives,” the page reads. “The officer corps is discussing the introduction of a formalized, chapter-wide educational program in order to reckon with our past as an institution, as well as the possibility of creating a financial aid program to alleviate unnecessary barriers.”
Students are fighting to keep the “warm glow” of giving ablaze in their screens’ blue light. Natalie’s foundation has gotten creative, hosting a virtual 5K race fundraiser, a Call of Duty tournament, and an online second-hand clothing sale. Columbia Effective Altruism ran their Arete Fellowship online. And though Columbia One for the World’s social media has been relatively quiet this fall, on November 12th, the organization celebrated its millionth dollar donated with Peter Singer over Zoom.
Students Helping Students notes that cultivating a joyful spirit around donation is essential. As Claire Shang wrote in these pages last month, “SHS organizers have been careful not to overemphasize language like ‘privilege’ and ‘obligation’ in order to ensure donations are not motivated primarily by shame, encouraging empathy instead.” They aim to cooperate with the philanthropic endeavors of Greek life. When any help is helpful, all help is welcomed.
“I’m not saying that because you’re rich you should be giving,” Mehala muses. “But I’m working-class and I give because I know what 10 dollars can mean to someone. Students Helping Students helped me all summer. And I donated to them when I had money in my checking account again. When I have a couple hundred dollars, I think, I have so much money. But my friends will have the same amount and say, ‘I can’t donate because I don’t have enough.’”
At the very least, philanthropic students can approach their giving more critically. The national wealth redistribution organization Resource Generation aims to rouse class consciousness in privileged young people. They urge donations of margins far greater than 1%, pledged to organizations far more “speculative” than most effective altruists would advocate, focused on the eradication of racial capitalism and equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. Resource Generation wants to work philanthropy out of a job.
Everyone is adapting, learning, and changing with the times—doing as students are wont to do. But years from now, when the pandemic is a distant memory, our former classmates tithing 1% of their income to distant charities should not be celebrating their generosity on a rooftop.
“Just be honest about your investment banking,” Mehala smiles.
Representatives of One for the World, Columbia Effective Altruism, St. Anthony Hall, Resource Generation, and the Delta Gamma sorority declined or did not respond to interview requests.