🌎 Do Better Better: How To Give

Quinn Emmett
October 14, 2022
Full name
Job title, Company name

Welcome back, Shit Givers.

And welcome back to my Do Better Better essays.

Welcome back, I say, because it’s been a minute – for both of us.

New here?

In 2020, I started writing more stand-alone essays outside of the newsletter, and readers loved them (don't worry, your regular newsletter returns next week — I'm traveling).

Anyways, then life happened, and the newsletter got longer, and I stopped writing the essays.

But then a couple months ago I polled readers, and you folks wanted both a shorter newsletter AND more deep-dives...and here we are.

So we're back. These essays are, well, not at all like the newsletter. They’re longer, and more conversational in format and tone than your usual internet think pieces. There will a bit of profanity, maybe some memes. I'm ancient.

Sometimes they’ll be short and to the point, and other times more meandering, and neither you nor I will have any idea which it is until I’m finished.

They’re a place to work out my own thoughts and strategies, and to provide you with more evergreen, deeper, and still actionable ways to think about...how to think about...today and tomorrow.

Look. You get it. You clicked on the big button underneath “science for people who give a shit”. The fundamentals of our world are changing quickly and -- at least for the rest of our lifetimes -- irrevocably.

It’s imperative that we, together, not only hustle our asses off to act with measure and courage, but also that we step back and reframe how we consider and approach problems and opportunities, for ourselves, our families, our businesses, industries, communities, and more.

Most often it means asking, in a variety of different ways, “How should I spend my time, considering…(screams into pillow)...everything?”

In past essays, I’ve explored topics like How to Spend the Next Ten Years, How to Start Over, The New Externalities, A Safety Net for America, and 20% For The Future. There's more, and we're going to make a section for them on the site, sorry.

On to today's essay.


You can read this essay on the website, or -- in a couple days, I'm traveling -- you can 🎧 listen to it (Spotify, Apple Podcasts).

✉️ Someone forward this you? Subscribe here.

🕛 Reading Time: 25 minutes


How To Give

Volunteers
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Counter to our weekly programming, today’s Action Step isn’t a one-click donation button, but rather an examination of your place in the world, as defined by your relationships to the people and places around you, and what you’re willing to give of yourself and your resources, to help those people and places thrive in a brave new world.

In the end, I hope you will not only be more capable of identifying where, how, and how much you want to contribute, but also able to answer: why.

“Why?” Yes, why.

You give a shit for a reason. What is it?

---

What are your relationships?

Before we get into the technicals of how to send your hard-earned cash towards a worthy cause or eleven, I think it’s necessary to do a hard reset, and to explore how and why we might identify with various causes -- what draws each of us to one cause more than another?

And that begins with identifying our existing relationships. So, literally, asking: What are your primary relationships? Who and what do you interact with most frequently? And why?

Some examples:

  • Family
    • Partner/spouse
    • Kids
    • Parents (hi, Mom)
    • Siblings
    • In-laws
    • Extended family
    • Chosen family
    • Your dog
    • Fine, your cat
  • Work
    • Colleagues
    • Suppliers
    • Customers
    • Investors
  • Groups
    • PTA
    • Youth
    • Adults sports
    • Book clubs
    • Online groups
  • Community
    • Grocery store
    • Neighbors
    • Schools
    • Library
    • Health care
    • Farmer's market
    • Volunteering
    • Church/whatever floats your boat
    • Restaurants
    • Bookstores
    • City council
    • Food pantries
  • Nature
    • Parks
    • Trails
    • Water
    • Air
    • Gardens

...and many more. You get the idea.

Relationships matter because, sure, while this might all be some kind of simulation, we don’t go through life alone (even though it might definitely feel that way sometimes).

Life is the sum of our interactions with others, and like that Ashton Kutcher movie about butterflies (?), your interactions with others often extend farther/further than you can imagine.

Some examples of those interactions include:

We make food for people to eat, and they might tell a friend about it.

We write software for people to design things with, and one of those designs helps build a new library.

We write books for people to read, and a young student is suddenly inspired to write their own.

We write movies to make people laugh, and a young person laughs – and discovers they might just be into fashion, or owning a used bookstore, or wedding planning, or another rom-com job (rom-coms rule).

We buy swiss chard from a farmer’s market to eat, and to support local farmers, who are able to switch to no-till farming.

We train for sports to improve ourselves and often measure our results against history or competitors, only to leave more records behind for others to measure themselves against.

We teach to help nurture young people, and they emulate you as they tutor others.

See? It’s the butterfly thing. Great work.

Identifying and then understanding our relationships with the world around us can help us answer our next question:

Are we affected by the world?

What the hell does that mean?

It means, “Do outside events affect you, positively or negatively, tangibly or not, in any way?”

It’s a ridiculous question, because of course they do, but stick with me – let’s break it down.

Outside events could affect you:

  • Physically
  • Mentally
  • Morally
  • Spiritually
  • Financially
  • Politically

Shit just never stops happening, even if most of the time we just shrug it off.

Racoon revised

Hot days, changing seasons, gas prices, viruses, store closings, more restrictive voting laws, zoning meetings, library renovations, new biking trails, play dates, new big-box grocers, local flooding, more expensive kids sports, someone didn’t look at the calendar, stubbed toes, teacher shortages, states accepting federal support for Medicaid, increased marketing budgets at work, sniffly noses —

-- these can all affect us in some way, every day.

Many of these impacts are simply part of “adulting” and being a human alive in the world, however active or passive. A sequence of mostly small impacts, absorbed over time like routine waves against the shore, and then you die.

But on the other hand, our world today isn’t very routine.

An increasingly volatile world going through some shall-we-say major transitions can feel like we’re not quite strolling carelessly barefoot along the shore, brisk waves biting at our ankles, and instead regretful and terrified passengers on an ill-advised fishing trip with post-ER George Clooney, subject to a succession of enormous, life-changing waves that feel unfair, if not downright personal, and clearly, totally out of our control.

It’s important to understand though that shift changes that do not directly affect our everyday lives can still move us.

For example: I am a happily married white adult male with health insurance and three children and no intention of having more. And yet – the increasingly successful and draconian attacks on abortion rights and contraception access make me fucking furious on a daily basis. It's just not right.

I have the same reaction, as loyal readers know, when I consider the millions of kids who grow up amidst toxic air pollution, hot classrooms or unreliable and unclean drinking water, lunch debt or with malaria, or – this one makes me just lose my mind -- kids cancer.

Which leads us to our next question:

How does the world make us feel?

Lately?

Schitts Creek meme

For every step forward, it feels like two to seven steps back.

Sure, Dark Brandon’s improved his game, but the end of democracy and a stable climate seem to always be just around the corner.

I am, in turn, a revolving door of angry, optimistic, exhausted, excited to tackle the day, even future-positive, but also usually, eventually, wanting nothing more than to shut it out and read fantasy books about other elves’ existential problems.

The point is: I get it. You care about things, and you feel things. I feel things. We feel things. Sometimes too much. Sometimes too little. Everything is a lot.

So how are today’s big waves affecting the people and places we have relationships with? Are you willing to fight for them, or let them go? You shouldn't stop there, but you also can’t help everyone, all the time.

And yet, you just identified fifty things you give a shit about, and then I went on and on about malaria, thousands of miles away. Super helpful. And feelings! So many feelings.

Having dwelled on these feelings, and knowing we really shouldn’t just shove them down, it’s time to seek an output for our emotions, a way to…do something…about the big waves crashing over the people and things we care about.

Can we affect the world back?

Perhaps the most helpful guiding mantra over the past couple years has been “All you can do is all you can do”.

What we are implying, and what you can really boil it down to, is a concept I talk about every day with my six-year-old, a lesson that can still be wildly frustrating when you’re six, sixteen, or almost forty, like me:

“The only thing you can control is how you react to this moment.”

Often the most prudent reaction to some shit is to take a deep breath and let it go, stop doom-scrolling, brush your teeth, and go to fucking bed, live to fight another day.

But mapping out, understanding, and appreciating your relationships with the world and the people in it, and actually evaluating the action levers available to you can help you better understand how you and I together can actually do something about all this shit, starting right at home.

It's time now to identify how to use our time, energy, and money most effectively.

But first, let's have some perspective.

Things are rough right now, but – without going full Steve Pinker, because you should never go full Steve Pinker:

The clean air you breathe, the civil rights you do have, the potable water you drink, the healthy food you eat -- not everyone has them, they didn’t always exist, and didn’t come from nowhere.

People before you identified with them, whether they had access to them or not. People fought for them, were beaten for them. People ran for office and then wrote and passed laws to guarantee them.

Many of us live in a vastly healthier, safer world than even fifty years ago, before the EPA, before the Clean Water Act, much less before the polio vaccine, or antibiotics, or immunotherapy.

Many but not all of you are breathing clean air right now, and drinking cold, clean water all day.

Many but not all of you can go to the doctor today if you need to, get an abortion if you need or want to, take time off work to have a baby if you need or want to, or take care of an aging parent because we all inevitable have to.

You can host a fundraiser for an exciting new candidate in your reliably blue state, or contribute $1 to a longer-shot candidate in a state where you’d never live, but where many people can’t afford to leave -- even if they need medical help.

But just because many of us have benefited from those fights doesn’t mean everyone else has.

And because evil is real, there remains a cohort of racist sexist shitty comic book villains who will literally light the world on fire to make a buck and keep it that way.

Good news: that means we will always, always have the opportunity to fight those fuckers to make sure everyone else benefits from clean air and water and food, too.

Yeah, you give a shit about the local library, and I LOVE our local library – but how often do you remember to actively give a shit about your clean air?

So hell yes you can affect your world, and the greater world, back. Millions of people have fought those fights, and now those fights have been handed down to you.

But one question remains:

Do you want to affect the world?

Let’s go back to the start:

New visitors read the bold print on our homepage and either run away or identify with “science for people who give a shit” for some specific reason: they’re a teacher or a student, a founder or a farmer, they lost a home to wildfires, or a cousin or any number of patients to COVID.

They see those bold letters and say, “Hey, that’s me, fuck yeah.”

And when you sign up (you should sign up), you get a welcome email and in it, I ask one simple question:

“Why are you here?”

The responses I receive are so widely varied, and so moving, that even on my hardest days, I cannot imagine quitting this job.

So you give a shit. You’re here to find out what you can do. I want to be crystal clear, though:

Taking action, however big or small, isn’t some salve or HOV lane to nirvana, or eliminating anxiety, or a more progressive, 15-member Supreme Court (just throwing it out there).

We are only human, we are just one person, we are not all-powerful, and anxiety can be helpful!

It’s what helped us avoid the local tiger long enough to procreate, it’s what makes us step back from the bus lane, or text a few hundred registered voters the first week in November year in and year out.

But on the other hand, these truths about our place in the universe can also, understandably, make us feel very small.

Oh, the jet stream is slowing down? What the fuck, I ask, am I supposed to do about that?

Alone, without a plan, without a team, we *are* small. You can only do so much.

But as we’ve established, you’re not alone. Not in your community, certainly not in our community, and not in the world. You have a number of relationships you care about, and people who care about you, and what you believe in.

Each of us almost always has more levers available to us than we realize, and together, they are a vast sum.

This is where organizing comes in.

Combined with neighbors, friends, co-workers, other organizers, other voters, and other city council members, we have helped more people vote.

Combined with friends with little time but big pockets, friends with small pockets but a lot of time, friends who can make signs, friends who don’t mind getting arrested once in a while, and fans of our TV shows and movies, we have made gay marriage legal.

Combined with old friends on Facebook, new friends on dairy farms, wet friends on kelp farms, and legions of young followers on TikTok, who follow us out of our schools and their own schools on strike days, we have passed some semblance of a fucking gun law.

Combined with family members in C-suites, or family members advocating for better access to clinical trials or coverage for pre-existing conditions, we have increased access to health care for millions.

Combined, our resources -- often time, money, or both -- can swing an election, or get some rural Arkansas kid into a cancer trial in Philly.

Combined, we are powerful as hell.

Combined, our enthusiasm and our methods are contagious, and much more effective than we could have ever imagined -- especially when inclusive, intentionally organized, and executed on proven strategies and specific, measurable outcomes.

For better or worse, we are most inclined to want to affect the world back when the things we care about are directly affected, and when we are directly affected.

But also, in this vast, over-connected world, we rally when we are unexpectedly aggrieved, when we see moral injustices, when we are caught up in social momentum, when progress is actually technically and politically possible, when a disease is nearly eradicated, when we have identified our most available and impactful levers, and when the goals of change are clear.

Which brings us to one of many ways you can affect the world back: to give.

Charity and/or philanthropy in 2022 is confusing, and often overwhelming.

We’ve all got 34,908 personalized, unopened emails from Nancy Pelosi in our inboxes right now, and GoFundMe’s become the savior of American health care bills.

Note: OF COURSE the well-being of millions of people shouldn’t rely on the charity of the few, but here we are.

Work with the system we’ve got while we try to change it.

So how should you give?

Opinions on whether, how, and when you should give are varied and contentious.

Well-meaning folks will argue you should drop everything and work for a non-profit, or, instead, “earn to give”.

That you should give away 10% or 20% or 50% of what you make now, every year, until you die.

Or conversely, others will say you should donate very little now, and instead make as much as you can over the years, save it up, and then drop it all on charity when you finally kick off.

And of course, there are movements like “effective altruism” -- notable, increasingly popular, and controversial, for its (arguable) focus on long-term, more existential and technocratic causes/threats, with less of a focus on relationships and more a heavy focus on utilitarianism (however far they'll admit they'd take it), and sometimes at the expense of people living and suffering now and in the near-future.

(EA is complicated and 100% deserves its own essay, but enough other smart people have covered all of the angles lately that I’m not going to bother)

Anyways. Shit’s complicated!

But it doesn’t have to be. So having identified what you want to protect, and that you’re willing to bleed for it, should you start like, right now?

When should you give?

Again, there’s two schools of thought when we talk about “when to give”:

Do you want to save up all of your hard-earned money and then distribute it in retirement, or upon your death, going out with a bang?

Or do you want to affect the world and the people living in it right now?

Do you want to actually see change happen, and a societal “return on your investment”, be inspired by it, learn from it, share it, and, together, fight for more of it?

There are benefits to both approaches, but – to be gross for a moment – financially, the tax considerations aren’t too complicated, but they are different (I am not an accountant, this is not tax advice).

Planned, end-of-life giving means an increased rate of return on the capital you build along the way, you don’t give up access to any of your income or assets now, especially in this economy, and you get a big tax writeoff in the end.

On the other hand, if you’re financially secure enough, and your goal is impact, giving now provides for annual tax benefits, a reduction in your taxable assets in the end, and impact-wise, an example you set for yourself and others.

Finally, and this is super important -- giving now, and on a recurring basis, provides a powerful opportunity to stop current problems from compounding into the future.

Again, this is key. Money isn’t the only thing that compounds.

Step into my time machine and understand: the past is always a relatively hellish landscape of the way we used to do things.

For example:

Imagine getting sick without antibiotics, having surgery without anesthesia, sailing on wooden ships and fighting pirates and cutting off limbs to stop infections from sword wounds, leeches, literally living a day on earth without washing our hands, building houses with asbestos, GIVING BABIES MORPHINE AND MERCURY FOR TEETHING (and syphilis, the flu, melancholy, and more).

People, listen: We still use chemotherapy, we still prescribe rat poison for bacterial vaginosis, our medical system runs on fax machines.

It’s easy to just hope for a comparatively better future, but that ignores the fact that we have to actively build it along the way.

That’s what our ancestors did. That’s why we’re here.

And building it together, month by month, adds up. Committing to a handful of causes near and dear to you builds experience, but also new relationships, habits, and precedents for action, and a model for others.

As Mariame Kaba put it: “Hope is a discipline.”

Or think of it this way: Showing up every goddamn day with your wallet, your time, and your body reinforces – or maybe even reinvents – who you are.

And that’s kind of the entire point of INI – I’m not asking you to take one specific action. I’m asking you to become who you want and we need you to be when you said you gave a shit.

When you organize, when you setup a new recurring donation or six, when you put every city council meeting and public utility commission on your calendar and then actually go to them, when you help fund a soccer school for kids in Africa, trained by local teachers and coaches – you’re building new habits, a new identity.

You’re saying “This is who I am, this is what I do.”

And then, like those goddamn Crossfit people, your organizing suddenly becomes your entire identity.

But can you actually make a difference?

Our climate crisis may seem like a hyperobject at times, a problem we made that our broken monkey brains can’t fully understand, much less address. But in reality, we know exactly how to slow it, we can’t do it without you, and we have to do it right now.

We have all the tools, but reducing its devastation -- like forestalling more COVID variants or even new pandemics -- and making progress requires all of us choosing to use them, day in, day out, multisolving and putting out systemic and actual fires along the way.

This is the way.

Progress compounds, but the future isn’t guaranteed.

The life many Americans have benefited from over the past century is in no way a sure thing.

Hurricanes have happened since as long as this simulation’s been running, but just last month, the west coast of Florida was predictably washed off the map by a storm we know we made worse.

Many people evacuated, but -- like many storms before it -- uncountable people couldn’t afford to leave, and many more simply didn’t have the heart to abandon their home, or their car, their animals, their way of life -- the relationships they’ve identified with for so long.

You know, the shit they care about. Would you leave? After everything we just talked about??

More structurally, our frontline health care workers are completely burnt out, it’s impossible to build anything like we used to, and the things we once built -- from railroads to subways to highways to voting rights to public schools -- have been mostly neglected, left out to dry by partisan infighting and overwhelming elite capture.

I am lucky to host weekly conversations with some of the world’s most incredible humans, many of them (much) younger than me, and their lived experiences, their ambition, and their commitment to each other and to radical change gives me...hope?

But I am weathered enough in this game to know the forces allied against them. Their future success is almost entirely predicated on the rest of us clearing a path, now.

We have to fight for the future, today, to make things better today, to be better ancestors starting today, to tell stories of a time to come that is cleaner, healthier, and more equitable, for more people.

I understand it’s difficult to see through the storms and the headlines, but it’s important to understand: there is a future of nearly unlimited, nearly free, clean energy in front of us. We are on the cusp of being able to snip away genetic diseases. These things will unlock so, so much.

But we have to build that future. It’s going to be complicated, and it will not be easy.

Learning meme

You’re not going to do it perfectly, nobody does, especially me. You’re never going to be done. You’re going to use plastic straws and it's going to piss you off, you’re welcome.

But we can Do Better Better. Being annoyed at using plastic straws but still using them when you have to means you give a shit.

Now it’s time to put that straw angst to use for everyone else, to join up with those who’ve been doing this forever, and lend your special set of skills to whatever cause you choose.

As Patrick Collison, co-founder and CEO of Stripe said recently, “I worry a lot about the basic stability of a society that does not successfully generate and make sufficiently broadly accessible the benefits of economic growth.”

It’s now a wholly inappropriate metaphor, but -- despite Silicon Valley fueling anarchy across the globe -- we’ve become increasingly disconnected from one another, with fewer shared fortunes, overall less committed to a rising tide lifting all boats.

What are your primary relationships?

How does it make you feel to see them threatened?

What the fuck are you willing to do about it?

Most recently, faced with a global threat, we came together and then quickly came apart, despite the advent of incredible new tools.

We have to do better next time, this time, and we have to start right now.

Where should you give?

Everything is on fire or under water or somehow both, and there are so many worthy causes, so I usually encourage folks to find the cross section of the relationships we highlighted above, and the most measurable, reputable ways to directly support or affect them.

Of course, only focusing on your direct relationships -- the people and things *you* can touch and feel -- belies enormous privilege and can leave much of the rest of the world out to dry.

This is kind of the opposite of effective altruism, which can often focus on the most effective bang for your buck, regardless of your relationship to it, if you have one at all.

American inequality is a nightmare in 55 different ways, but make no mistake: just being born here puts you among some of the most well-off people on the planet, full stop.

From malaria to water to hunger to girls’ education to energy poverty, there are causes the world over that are less severe here and where you can have a hugely measurable impact.

Little old you isn’t responsible for the world’s suffering. Though to be clear, the top 10% and further, 1%, are responsible for drastically more emissions than anyone else combined. 

Global North governments, elected and held to the fire by us, must play a huge part, and send lower-income countries billions in reparations, mitigation, and adaptation for our changing world.

You definitely shouldn’t try to do too many different things at once. But you can and should be able to strategically walk and chew gum at the same time.

That’s where the progress happens.

So let’s finally get a bit more technical. Understand this:

Donations to charitable causes are (generally) tax-deductible; donations to partisan political causes are not.

But it’s not that simple. Ask any billionaire who pays next to nothing in taxes but millions to accountants to make sure it remains that way.

In those cases, fighting for environmental justice, or, say, less kids’ cancer, isn’t usually the end goal, but a means to an end.

But for your purposes, whether or not your cause is “partisan” or not doesn’t necessarily make it more meaningful or effective than the other.

On the one hand, there are so many worthy non-profits/NGO’s out there saving lives, feeding people, doing research, helping children read, fighting malaria, doing immigration law, etc.

And on the other hand, “partisan” frontline community organizing is maybe the most effective tool we have for driving systemic change.

In fact, the two are often most powerful when strategically combined.

Feed people now, while you simultaneously organize for local, state, and federal legislation to make school breakfasts and lunches healthier, and permanently free to all kids.

Support people in need of abortions and abortion providers in red states right now, while you simultaneously fight for state and federal candidates who publicly support abortion rights legislation, and for more women and historically marginalized people at all levels of policymaking.

Support victims of climate-fueled natural disasters like Ian today, while you fight for decarbonization legislation and corporate “ESG” (ugh) regulation for the long-term.

Make no mistake: the world needs us now.

I want to conclude by illustrating two contradictory points.

One: Progress compounds, and once established is difficult to put back in the box, but if (frantically waves hands) is any indication, there will always be evil people and vested interests who want to Make America Segregated Again™.

Fighting those fuckers is the fight of my life.

Two: Whenever possible, I would recommend you apply your rage to causes with clear, measurable outcomes.

One example of a specific, measurable outcome is “Fly a person to the moon, land her on it, and bring her home safely.”

Not a lot of wiggle room there. It’s clear, and most importantly, you can design every milestone, process, team, and decision against it. NASA did it for processor chips, you can do it for clean air.

(Other examples: “Zero transportation emissions by 2035”, or “90% national vaccination rate by January 1st”)

Your rage, or sadness, or passions are helpful, but only when most applicable -- many fights for justice will never end, but there are always opportunities to make clear a goal to reach for.

Once you have that goal, reverse engineering an economy, an industry, a city, your philanthropy, and/or your investments from these specific, measurable outcomes can clarify everything you do -- and be devastatingly effective as you choose how to give, and how you execute and iterate along the way, affecting the world back.

So my TL;DR is this: Make giving a part of your life.

Find your hill(s) to die on, find groups doing reputable work to defend them, and then join them, listen to them, building new relationships along the way, and compounding progress towards a better world -- for everyone.

Learn how to give by giving yourself and your resources now, and then – like everything else – you will learn, and adapt, and get better at it.

Talk about it, normalize it. Share your successes and failures, giving others a jumpstart into their own action.

Whether you work with a financial advisor or not, or use budgeting software or your own spreadsheet or calendar or I don't know, stickie notes, take a look at the levers available to you, set aside a monthly allocation of money and hours for action, consider the pros and cons of getting arrested, and then build your own Action Portfolio from among the causes you want to change for the better.

Nobody else showing up at public utility meetings? Excellent, now you’re that weird lady who can’t stop piping up about native plants and bees and solar panels. Embrace it. Put it on social media, build a rabid following.

Want to put your new monthly donations on a credit card to get more points? Great. Max it out.

Want to use a donor-advised fund? Good for you. Just make sure you actually donate the money, Frank.

The truth is, I don’t really give a shit how you do it, as long as you actually take the time to identify what you give a shit about, and why, and who’s doing the best work and is best positioned to move the needle for the most people, or animals, or land, and then get started.

Remember: people have always been here fighting, because they have to fight. 

---

I guess it all comes back to gratitude.

I’m piss-poor at keeping journals and such, but I have found the most impactful opportunities to ask “How can I help” come when I’ve already spent considerable time understanding who or what I want to help, and why.

We might be alone in this quickly expanding universe, but you certainly aren’t.

To paraphrase what 60 of my favorite climate women said a couple years back: all we can save is each other, and the world we’re so lucky to inhabit, to make it safe and accommodating for each and all of us, till the heat death of the universe do us part.

— Quinn 


INI is 100% independent and mostly reader-supported. The weekly newsletter and most of these essays are free, but to support our work, receive an invitation to our Community and the delightful comments section, and more, please consider becoming a paid Member.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit. 

-- Quinn

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