Where would a do-gooder do the most good?

A loyal reader writes:

I am sitting down on a rainy night to try and dream up a future career… I am a humanities guy with a hobby in economics (not a engineer or coder.)  I want to seek wisdom, not riches; I want to do good, not become wealthy. I want to go where others aren't.

So here is the main question:

1) What would be on your list of unsolved problems that public governments or private enterprise are not addressing adequately? Which of these could be addressed by 1 person or by $1,000? By 10 people or $10,000? 100 people or $100k? 1,000 people or $1MM? 10k or $10M? 100k or $100MM. Where can I have a lot of impact even if I won't find fabulous wealth?

And here is my meta-question.  The problem is that market prices do not correctly signal the relative value of public goods or charitable goods.  So what signals should someone use if they want to allocate their labor (in the charitable sector) to the highest value product?


kill yourself and donate the organs.

Without further information there is no reason to assume that market prices are incorrect. Probably the way to do the most good is to do what other people want you to do the most (i.e. what they will pay the most for) and then give away a significant amount of that money to charity to add a multiplier effect. For a humanities guy with an interest in economics I suggest Corporate Lawyer. Think of it as helping businesses to operate efficiently in a world of far from efficient policy.

don't have kids and
give birth away birth control pills.

Write, develop, and produce media that are of wide appeal that illustrate the benefits of diligent work, critical thinking, and personal responsibility without resort to plots centered on violence, magic, or state intervention. Show how cooperation and commerce, not conspiracy, drives society to more diversity and greater prosperity.

Ok, I'll stop dreaming... Whatever you do, do it honestly and with real vigor. That will always keep things interesting and still let you sleep at night.

This will be very hard to do, pay little, but perhaps, someday, have a real impact.

Write, develop, and produce media that are of wide appeal that illustrate the benefits of diligent work, critical thinking, and personal responsibility without resort to plots centered on violence, magic, or state intervention. Show how cooperation and commerce, not conspiracy, drives society to more diversity and greater prosperity.

I'm afraid we've already used up the Ayn Rand quota for the time period.

To attempt to get to Alex's question, I think we need to define "good", er, better. There cannot be an absolute ranking of good deeds, because not everyone agrees on what outcomes are optimal. So we need to fall back to either personal judgements (in which case the original questioner doesn't provide enough information) or look for lowest common denominators that at least most people could agree on.

If we're doing the latter, I think a decent spotter for high-impact, large problems in need of fixing would be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of what they do is driven by the interests of the principals, but much of their activities are trying to tackle huge problems that are actually, at least to a degree, solvable, and they seem to be quite efficient.

Perhaps your correspondent could look for a job with them, or alternately look at what they're up to and take a job at another charitable group that maps more closely to their values and attempt to nudge it to be more like them. (I have no affiliation with them, and kind of viscerally dislike Bill because I work in IT, but think the foundation is a great thing.)

Same as other investments: put your money where you have an informational advantage.

Read "The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else" by Hernando De Soto along with the latest 'Doing Business' report from the World Bank (they essentially update all of his research on an annual basis). Then, work on getting your joint MBA/JD degree so you can start the process of removing the obstacles to new business development in developing economies around the world.

As an example: current corporate tax rates in a few select countries: Uzbekistan 94.9%; Belarus 99.7%; Argentina 108.1%; Burundi 278.6%; Gambia 292.4%; USA 35%.

In summary - obstacles to new business development (I mean, seriously, why would anyone try to run formal business in a country where your tax rate is multiples of your profit?) prevent people from ever getting out of deep poverty and deep poverty leads to or maintains some of the worst conditions of life in the world. By persuading political leaders in these countries to remove these obstacles, you'll help start people on the path to their own self-fulfillment and the make the world a better place.

Money multipliers are great but effort multipliers are even better. Focus on trying to make others "better" and encourage them to do the same. Have a vision and share it with others who will also share it. I guess you could say I recommend starting a religion of sorts - though no God required. The other thing to realize with this advice is that a "religion" operates without political or corporate bounds. And while they setup their own power structure this, IMO, is a flaw of organized religion.

If you ignore "God-Made Events" much of the so-called evil in the world is present due to human behavior. Since the ability to influence those who espouse evil is severely limited the goal should be to give those who would be its target the tools, knowledge and willpower to fight that evil themselves - since you or anyone else cannot fight all battles against evil.

In short, don't attempt to solve specific problems but instead try to teach and guide others to become better adept at finding their own solutions.

Look for cheap methods to improve medical care. Afaik, there isn't any large incentive to do this, but it's very valuable. Perhaps starting a charity for the purpose would work, if you can build it into a large organization.

If we start with the proposition that values are subjective (where would such an idea come from?), then the notion that the relative value of public or charitable are incorrectly signalled by the market falls to pieces.
Ultimately, your loyal reader should not be asking where he can do the most good. He should be asking how he can pursue his personal greatest passion in a way that does good.

Hey Alex, someone shared your post with me over Google Reader and I thought I might share some thoughts and point you to a useful resource. My first thought would be to get experience (not knowing your backgroung, I'm potentially incorrectly assuming you don't have any). Find some work that feels meaningful that you believe will have an impact and explore different locations, careers and callings. To that effect, I'd like to point you here: http://www.reliefweb.int/vacancies/
Its a great site where a lot of governments and NGO's post job opportunities in a variety of sectors. Most of the openings are international and I think its very likely you'll be able to find one that matches your interests and gives you the opportunity to make an impact.

Go to work for Goldman Sachs. The highest pay means greatest social good, right?

The economics of charity is well known: in general, you should find the highest paying job you can and donate all of the money beyond some amount you need to the charity which you have judged to do the most good. As for figuring out who does the most good, I suggest givewell.org, as they seem to be the only people who set out to find out how to do the most good in a relatively rigorous way. One of the lessons from their research seems to be that rigor is very important to making good decisions about charity. A lot of charity is about looking good or feeling good instead of actually doing good.

I asked a somewhat similar question as a teenager to a gentleman that worked as a social worker. He answered that the best way to help the most people was to start a business and hire the most people you possibly can. kb

Distribute The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged to your friends who are contemplating charitable work or organ donation.

Build up an Anti-Agrosubsidy organization and invite bureaucrats in Brussels for lunch.

Why not consider spiritual good work as well? Millions, even billions of people derive significant benefit from religion, inspiring them to be better people in all sorts of ways, from consoling families after a death to inspiring charitable giving. You may not be able to quantify it, but I'm sure that a good person-of-the-cloth can create tremendous positive outcomes.

Btw, real entrepreneurs do exactly what you are doing and some of them end up rich. Don't worry about it either way, it'll be a competitive advantage. In fact, getting rich when you aren't trying is the best indicator you are addressing a big, scalable problem. Go where there are no profits and create some, or find where there are lots of profits and undercut the rent seekers, such as banks discussed above.

Here's another idea. There is a lot of angst and inefficiency in choosing research advisors and departments. It's not uniform and only effective in the sense that these places are not allowed to fail on their merits (more rent seekers). They justify it by claiming that it is to test your ability to wade through unstructured project. That's really just BS. Create a "ratemyadvisor" website. Don't discount the insight a humanities guy could lend to the engineers and coders who are creating all this low-hanging fruit. The world needs a lot more creative destruction.

Simple: become an engineer (bio chemist might work too). Too many 'do-gooders' like to improve the world by spending (mostly tax) money and keeping a 'deserved' slice for themselves.

Water. The "plastics" of the 21st century.

Sounds like you're young enough that you'll witness the end of the water-diamonds paradox.

Water access, water purification, etc. etc.

A worthy life's work.

Isn't this a solved problem? Find your highest comparative advantage, make as much money as possible, and donate that to people who's advantage lies in spending it in ways you find "good".

Find a place where the other workers are happy and motivated. I've worked in both good and bad non-profits ... and the bad one seemed to be much more profitable and stable in terms of a business model, but the turnover was very high and morale very low.

Other than that, if I were seeking to do what your mailer is seeking, I would find a way to allow folks to purchase their way out of continued government taxation. For example, if someone floated me a bond for say $500,000, that I could use to purchase my expected lifetime of tax payments to government, I would surely do it.

Regardless of one's views of taxation, is there not a point at which people can be expected to pay their fair share and be done with the commitment?

I'm a bit loathe to say this, but right now if you want the most bang for your labor hours buck, you should run for public office. The government in all its various forms controls a large percentage of the money and all of the rules for both public and charitable goods.

If you want to have a sense of having accomplished good things, there's any number of ways you can do that, and no reason to recommend any of them specifically. Pick something that makes you feel good and quit wasting mental energy struggling over the decision.

If, on the other hand, you want to actually do good rather than simply feel good about yourself, then as several posters have already mentioned, the path is quite clear: make as much money as you can (honestly, i.e. no robbing people and no rent-seeking from government) and give away as much as you can bear to part with. Tyler Cowen suggests giving cash remittances directly to nearly-randomly chosen poor people in developing countries; others have recommended GiveWell.

Of course, there's no reason you can't compromise a bit and combine the two. Choose a career that doesn't make as much money (and thus doesn't create as much valuable stuff for other people) but which has some kind of intangible feel-good aspect, like helping the homeless with their legal problems. The feel-good will be a purely selfish benefit, but there's nothing wrong with that. Everyone deserves to feel good about themselves.

And on the third hand: if you feel confident (or even merely hopeful) that your talents, experience, interests, and enthusiasm could make you well-suited towards solving some particular problem, if only you knew what problem to solve... well, then, congratulations, you are contemplating becoming an entrepreneur. That is truly a noble career choice. Even here, however, you should look for problems that you can solve most profitably, not those that you think sound like they would do good for the world. Your subjective evaluation - and everyone else's - is almost certainly too high for "good causes" relative to the things that people actually want and are willing to pay for, like better mousetraps or a three cent savings on a tube of toothpaste.

If you feel you are an expert in the field you want to give charity in, just do it - volunteer, donate, whatever. If you feel you are NOT an expert (like, say, virtually everyone), take a page from W (and business schools everywhere) - find a person or people you respect, and follow their lead/put them in charge. E.g. give to the Gates Foundation or charities with similar methods and goals, if you like Gates or Buffett, or give to Livestrong, if you respect Lance Armstrong (or, apparently, Drew Carey) highly. You are going to accomplish more by doing whatever you do which is of the highest "private" value and passing the surplus earned on to charity, than trying to 'do' something outside your area. Now, if you are at the point where you can 'train' to enter a good-doing career, find something you enjoy and is remunerative, no matter the 'social' impact and do as above, or find a way to become a celebrity (including politicians) - impact comes from power, power comes from influence, and influence can either be bought with money, or earned through fame/reputation, or a combination thereof.

If you are really starting from scratch, and feel extremely confident in your ability not to be assimilated into the rather toxic cultural values of the place, go to law school - it is the door to power in all sorts of areas, and you can use your degree for good or ill as you see fit.

"Go to work for Goldman Sachs. The highest pay means greatest social good, right?"
Highest compensation. See the clergy and accountant example (that I think was in a post on this site).

Assuming you have no desire to get into engineering or manufacturing, I would suggest get you JD, specialize in something that affects the poor disproportionately (non English speakers and contract law, for example) and do a bunch of pro bono work.

Anytime anyone anywhere mentions the works of Ayn Rand in a positive light, donate money to a charitable organization. I will match your donation.

Risks to human civilization as a whole arising from future technology like artificial intelligence are hugely under-studied (considering the potential stakes are current and future generations). From that perspective you might consider SIAI (http://singinst.org) or the FHI at Oxford (www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/).

(my thesis topic, non-performing loan disposition in China, though the valuable loans have probably been looted by insiders long ago)

That is outstanding! Go with this! We have a government that has basically said "the market is efficient, so here are rules that act on that, mark-to-market, etc." then "Oh, you guys told us the market is efficient, and it's not, now we need regulations that recognize the market is completely inefficient and corrupt!"

In actuality, the market is pretty efficient because people make it that way. Looting valuable loans is fine, as long as you don't fraudulently securitize the rest as valuable and then make banks buy them (AAA) and then mark them to market on the way up and down and force them to recalculate their reserves on that basis.

Since the question seems to rule out the most obvious ways of personally doing a lot of good (acquiring wealth or training in something like medicine), and few people seem to have the stomach for the indirect efficiency that jsalvati proposed of earning a good income and living austerely while spending the bulk on charity, one under-served area that seems to me to make sense in terms of direct action and relatively low investment in new skills before you can begin would be to join an organization like Givewell (btw, it seems to be givewell.net... the org address links to some kind of placeholder page). Improving and disseminating knowledge about effective and efficient charities seems like it has the potential to have a lot more leverage than simply going to work for one. Even a blog that focused on that sort of thing would be a step in the right direction.

I want to seek wisdom, not riches; I want to do good, not become wealthy. I want to go where others aren't.

Sounds like he's looking for a career in sainthood.

Or he's fulla crap.

If one decides, as seems to be indicated, to elect particular channels through which what good one may do are to be preferred, if not exclusive, there will be no "knowledge", let alone wisdom, to be gained from the "search."

Perhaps the most "good" we do consists of those actions which are complementary to the abilities of others, which enable others in their functions in our lives together.:

Many professionals, such as surgical nurses, learn that the good they do is in using their skills to support others in the theatre, and the ultimate good comes from complementary actions.

Still, one thing that comes true from commerce and markets (to do good - and possibly do well):


Posted by: R. Richard Schweitzer |

Reduce existential risk. I don't know how yet.

1 person $1000 proposal-

If you know how to read music and even just understand a piano keyboard you can teach/facilitate beginning piano and keys.

1. Buy some 61 key keyboards on craigslist. $25-$75
2. Learn to play "Twinkle Twinkle, "I'm a Little Tea Pot" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider"
3. Volunteer to teach kids in community centers and schools.
4. Donate a keyboard a month until you have spent $700
5. Use the remaining $300 to buy music related coloring books and games.

Works best if you work nights and you need to spend ten to fifteen hours a week doing this. You could start at five hours a week though.

Re jsalvati's comment: "... find the highest paying job you can and donate all of the money beyond some amount you need ..."

Which action does the most good? The job or the charity? I think maybe the job, which can only pay a high amount if you are producing something of value for others. Charities, not subject to a market test, are probably of negligible value.

Take care of yourself. Take care of your mother. Foster your community and be loving and supportive to your friends. Be a guide to people who are going through the same issues you once went through.
Please, don't think you have the answers to the problems of people who are in a completely different situation than you have ever been in, and don't get in the way of other people's self-determination and ability to conquer their own problems. One of the greatest ways you can do good is by recognizing the problems with do-gooders.

The net effect is to create a predisposition to assign too small a space in our daily lives for helping to improve society. Giving has not kept up with increased incomes and wealth in this very strong economy.

I really like your blog very much and i hope you will continue this good work in the future as well

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