Earning to give: 80,000 hours well-spent

Jack May 9 October 2014

Matthew van der Merwe isn’t your average charity-loving philanthropist. Tall, dashing, clean-cut, and incredibly well-dressed, he goes against almost every pernicious and enduring stereotype of ‘the student charity hack’ you can imagine, and yet this is the Philosophy student driving one of Cambridge’s most sensible and forward-thinking charity organisations. A finalist at Gonville & Caius College, Matthew is the President of 80,000 Hours: Cambridge, our one-year-old chapter of the nationwide, and rapidly growing, charity.

What actually is 80,000 Hours?

80,000 Hours is the total time we spend working in life. Given how much time this is, it's important to decide how to spend it, and what you want achieve with it. The idea behind 80,000 Hours is to take seriously the question of how to do good through your career.

And how can you do that?

The conflation of 'ethical careers' and 'charity work' in Cambridge is particularly misleading. There's nothing ‘morally’ better about being the person in Africa organising charity work than having paid for it to be done through donations as a software engineer, or having encouraged others to donate as a journalist. The traditional view is that only the first person has the ethical career, which isn’t fair – people need to be more open-minded about career choices.

What do you want to spend your 80,000 hours doing?

In my own career I'd like to do as much good as possible, and do something I enjoy. I'm still not sure, but since finding out about 80,000 Hours I've considered some careers I never would have thought about. I think it's likely I'll pursue 'earning to give', i.e. take a high-earning job and give a large proportion of my income to effective charities. This is still a route which very few people have taken, but more students should consider.

How can students best support charities?

Signing the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of income is a great idea for students. It's right to worry about making promises one might not be able to keep, but the pledge isn't legally binding in any way, and donating 10% of the median Cambridge graduate salary is perfectly feasible, and would do an enormous amount of good. There's a pragmatic argument for doing it too, since if you donate a proportion of your income from the day you get your first payslip, you’ll never suffer any loss in disposable income. Signing before you take a job may make it more likely that you follow through.

What kind of response have you had?

The last time we counted there are 29 Cambridge students who have taken the pledge. Using very conservative estimates, that makes £5m in pledged donations, and that’s a lot of money by any standards. If you are interested in the what careers to pursue it’s important to keep an open mind, but it’s about donations now as much as commitments in the future. Donating more is easy, and will almost definitely make you happier, but it’s giving effectively that really helps you know exactly how much of an impact your money is having.