How To Give

For real this time

INI logo - default, no tagline

This is what money looked like before Dogecoin kids

Welcome back.

I’m excited to share this essay. I wrote a long, shitty version of it a couple years ago, but I think this is much better — and pretty timely.

Please drop your comments below, or if you’re shy, you can just reply and share them with me.

Have an awesome weekend.

— Quinn

Did you know we record an audio version of all of our essays? Subscribe to our podcast feed and listen to this essay now 👇️ 

I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.

Every week, I help 28,000+ humans understand and unfuck the rapidly changing world around us. It feels great, and we’d love for you to join us.

Together With The Rundown AI

AI won’t take your job, but a person using AI might. That’s why 500,000+ professionals read The Rundown – the free newsletter that keeps you updated on the latest AI news and teaches you how to apply it in just 5 minutes a day.

Want an ad-free experience? Become a Member.

🤝 Get a Vibe Check

INI is 100% independent and proudly supported by readers like you.

Members get:

  • Vibe Check: Our popular news homepage, curated daily just for you. Never doomscroll again, thx

  • Half Baked: Weekly briefs to help you think and act on specific, timely issues as they happen

  • The Thunderdome: Join us on INI Slack to connect, build, and share dog pics

  • Lifetime thanks for directly supporting our work


There are few problems so simple that a single donation can fix them.

But I mean how nice would that be? I wouldn’t even have to write the rest of this post. Everybody wins.

Anyways, usually, to turn a problem into a realistic opportunity takes many donations. Over time, spread over a large number of donors.

But all the work before that is kind of exhausting: you’ve gotta make sure your donation go to the right place, the right organization, the right people — usually the ones closest to the problem — with the most pragmatic intentions.

Because your town or humanity’s problems can be so big and so complex, while still grounded in our most basic needs, becoming a part of who we are and how we operate, they can take a very long time to address, much less solve, and so we have to find ways to relieve the symptoms now, while we hunt for a cure for...someday.

Relieve the symptoms, chase a cure. It’s that simple.

But, of course, it’s not.

We can’t help everyone right now. And efforts to relieve the symptoms may either not work at all or have known or even unknown side effects.

Similarly, we might know what form a cure should take, but have no idea how to get there.

For example, even if the desired outcome is clear and still possible — for example, to live — the effort we give can make torture like chemotherapy worth a shot.

If we can imagine the possibilities of a technology like mRNA vaccines, we might spend our lifetimes trying (and failing, and failing, and failing, and then, just in time, succeeding) to make the human body not freak out with inflammation when we use it.

If — like Dr. Ruth Gottesman literally this week, you had a half-century of intimate knowledge of not only the why and how of an invaluable institution, but also access to the means to address its most specific issue, one that may help unfuck a very timely societal bottleneck — you may decide, having all of the info you can possibly have, to put your thumb on the scale.

I am here to tell you that while, unlike Ruth, your single donation will almost certainly not make tuition free at an entire medical school, get your favorite candidate elected, keep a place like Mexico City from running out of water, or reduce childhood diabetes, it will combine with many others, coming at the problem from many different approaches, at every level of support, over however long it takes, to at least put a dent in the fucking thing.

Giving money is far, far, far from the only way to give — we can and should also give our time and our bodies and skills, don’t @ me I have written a gazillion words on it and recorded almost 200 hours of conversations about it — but for today’s purposes, and short of these (or if you’re a moron like me, when your skills simply aren’t applicable), giving money can continue a tradition of directly supporting people on the frontlines of a more hopeful future.

You may have heard it called “earn to give” or something similar. Whatever you call it, giving will make you feel good, and it will do good.

It will cost you some money upfront, and it will also save you on your taxes later.

It will help you see the world differently, to further illustrate our inequalities and how incredible the helpers can be.

It will make you angry and thankful.

Giving will become a part of who you are.

You will become a helper, even if, again like me, you have very few practical skills. Billions have done it before you, and with fewer resources.

This is Compound Action. And it’s how to give.

Where should you give?

Ask yourself this:

What do you actually give a shit about, and why?

New visitors to our website read the bold print and either 1) run away or 2) immediately identify with “science for people who give a shit”, and usually for some specific, personal 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.

Those people see the big bold letters and say, “Hey, that’s me, fuck yeah.”

And then when they/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, so selfless*, and so moving, that even on my hardest days, I cannot imagine quitting this job.

*To be frank, I have engaged with many people who have or manage a shit-ton of money and have been told to give some percentage of it away, and I am thankful for them at least calling me because maybe I helped them not throw it away. Their dollars count, too.

So, for whatever reason, you give a shit. You’re here to find out what you can do with your hard earned cash.

I want to be crystal clear, though:

Donating money, however big or small, isn’t a complete 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 each just one person, we are not all-powerful, and your anxiety isn’t going anywhere.

(Anxiety can be helpful — it is 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)

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, Compound Action.

You are definitively not alone. Not in your community, certainly not in our community, and not in the world.

(There is another thing, or I guess set of things, that unites us all, and I’ll get to those in a sec)

In the meantime, you have a number of relationships you care about, and people who care about you, and what you believe in, but also people you’ve never met before and may never meet, people thousands of miles away who care about the same shit you do, and who fucking need you.

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

Giving whatever you can is just one of those levers, and, just like your investments can compound over time, so can your actions.

As just one example, one of the best places to give (other than just literally giving people cash, which is maybe the single best example) is to frontline organizers.

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

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

Combined with new fundraising tools and old friends on Facebook, new friends on old 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 well-endowed C-suites, and of course, family members advocating for better access to clinical trials or coverage for pre-existing conditions because they actually have those conditions, we have increased access to health care for millions.

Combined, our resources -- our time and money combined -- can swing an election in Georgia, finally, or get some rural Arkansas kid into a cancer trial in Philly. All because people born into the problem refuse to see it as unconquerable for decades on end. So they make that their actual job.

Your actual job might be to invest in a college endowment or corporate M&A, but your monthly donation to their organization can make you feel like you’re doing fucking something.

Combined, you see, we are powerful as hell.

Combined, our money, 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.

Which is why I highly recommend you apply your rage to causes with clear, measurable outcomes.

Many charities should be trying to put themselves out of business

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.

The desired outcome is clear, and most importantly, you can reverse engineer from it. You can design every milestone, process, team, and decision against it. NASA did it for processor chips, you and I can do it for clean air (I can not even begin to imagine how to build a processor chip).

Some more relevant examples

  • “Zero transportation emissions by 2035”,

  • “90% national booster rate by January 1st (sigh)”

  • “Train a million new electricians by 2026”, etc.

The best organizations and people identify and use their one metric to train their energies on where they can be most effective.

Your rage or sadness or whatever other passions are helpful, but only when most practical and applicable -- many fights for progress and justice will never end, but there are people working in highly specific places on the frontlines of the future for a reason.

Because they know the weak spots — where we know we can get a foot in the door. They are where the puck is going, where we begin to win, and therefore where your money should go.

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

Want your school district to have all-electric buses? School lunches to be free? Protected bike lanes on every street? Subsidies and rebates, etc. for low-income renters to get induction stoves and heat pumps?

That’s great! Crystal clear. Now you’re getting it.

Here is something controversial but annoyingly true

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 I have good and bad news, and this is the thing I alluded to earlier: however privileged we may be (in my case, extremely), we all need the exact same shit: air, water, food, shelter, power, health care, and education, and preferably the cleanest, more affordable and accessible versions of these.

Better news: It is extremely easy and extremely important to identify with a local problem, put some resources into it so you can see your impact every single day — and then extend an equal amount to someone for whom this problem is like water to fish, part of life.

In this vast, over-connected world, we are actually, objectively most effective when we are unexpectedly aggrieved, bearing witness to moral injustices that we could never dream of personally experiencing (or, in fact, may have intimately experienced ourselves). When we are caught up in social momentum, when progress is actually technically and politically possible, when an endemic childhood disease our children can’t even imagine is nearly eradicated.

It doesn’t mean those same issues don’t exist at home or we shouldn’t help pay for our own kids’ teachers school supplies (you absolutely should).

But have you ever tried donating to another kid’s teacher?

I promise you have never felt a high like an actual envelope stuffed with hand-written thank you notes from some distant 2nd graders, all because you sent the teacher $34 for math supplies.

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 focuses on getting 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, and our best organizations go criminally undersupported, 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 don’t exist or are far less severe here and where you can have a hugely measurable impact.

Of course, 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).

Listen, and this is very meta: of course the well-being of millions and billions of people shouldn’t rely on the charity of a relative few, but here we are.

Of course RIP Medical Debt shouldn’t have to exist.

But it does, because we are stupid and kick kids off Medicaid simply because their parents couldn’t figure out the legendarily onerous paperwork.

So here we are — we relieve the symptoms while we chase a cure, even and especially at the highest level.

Let’s get technical.

Literally how to give, finally

Donations to charitable causes with a 501(c)(3) 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, or, like for Dr. Gottesman, making tuition free for the next generation of primary physicians isn’t usually the end goal, but a means to an end.

But for your purposes, yes, grab your tax rebates if you want/need them, but whether 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 501(c)(3)’s — 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, as we have discussed, (sometimes) “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 (or at least pay for someone else to 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 today, while you fight for decarbonization legislation and corporate “ESG” (ugh) regulation for the long-term.

Make no mistake: while I do not subscribe to The Long Defeat, the world needs us now, and we have to come at it from every angle.

Why do we have to give/why are we the way we are

Well, I’m not going to answer those here because Willow and I agreed on a word limit and I keep not doing it, but you can read my takes here. We are only human and that is both great and continually, predictably self-defeating.

Understand this, though:

Progress compounds — including your own monthly donations, which become support a person or organization can actually depend and build on. Once established, progress is difficult to put back in the box. We would not have the nice things we have if it didn’t.

But if (frantically waves hands) is any indication, there will always be evil people and vested interests who want to Make America Segregated Again™.

Their objectives include but are not limited to drugs you can’t afford from doctors who won’t see you for uteruses you don’t control and more guns to kill more kids before they can be shamed for their fucking lunch debt, anyways.

Fighting those fuckers is the fight of my life, and I suspect that fight will never actually end.

So my TL;DR (I have no idea if I’m using that right) for “how to give” 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.

Start now, commit to recurring donations, and you will live to see the fruit of your contributions.

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, because why not, 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? Err, well, their track record keeps getting worse, so just make sure you actually donate the money, Frank. Remember: the tax benefits are great, but that’s not the actual point.

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 supporting them.

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

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

How To Give A Shit header

Last week’s most popular Action Step was using Recurrent to research the quality of an EV and its battery before purchasing.

  • 🌍️ Donate to Give Directly and put cash straight into the pockets of the people who need it the most.

  • Volunteer with Overdose Lifeline to support their harm reduction and awareness efforts.

  • Get educated about starting a resilience hub in your community with resources from the USDN.

  • Be heard about making healthy school meals free for students everywhere.

  • Invest in a sustainable future and find a clean bank to move your money into using

*🌎️ = Global Action Step

🙋‍♀️ Vote!

Last week, 36% of you said you don’t own an EV, and you’re unsure if you ever will. About a third of you said you already own one. It’s complicated!

This week — we’re going to write more about this soon, but as you may have heard, measles! are! back! So fun.

Did you get the MMR vaccine as a kid?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Want to talk climate strategy, investing, or anything else?

Want to sponsor the newsletter?

Get your brand, product, or service in front of 28,000+ sustainably-minded consumers:

Join the conversation

or to participate.