Advice To Young Animal Advocates: Okay, So Forget Wall Street, But Do Get Rich And Give Back

» July 29th, 2014

My last piece generated some interesting comments. My intention was to float an idea while testing my hypothesis that most advocates, no matter how they see their interests as morally equivalent to sentient animals, place their arbitrary choices ahead of animals’ essential ones. I think it was successfully fulfilled.

Many readers said, more or less, “but I wouldn’t be happy doing that.” Fine. I get that. I agree. I do what I do—write about animal interests because it’s something I’m passionate about and something that I enjoy (most of the time, mind you). I’d hate being on Wall Street, or in a law firm, or running an oil company—but I’d likely be better able to help animals with the kind of wealth generated from such pursuits, all of which I’m theoretically able to do.

This exercise isn’t intended to condemn anyone or suggest activist ineffectiveness. It’s merely to note the humbling reality that we could all be more effective if we were altruistic millionaires rather than altruistic keepers of blogs, sanctuaries, and deeply help opinions about justice for animals. And to emphasize that the fact that we don’t has ethical implications. Sometimes, in other words, it’s important to be reminded that, for all our awareness of ourselves and animals, we’re hampered by an inherited cultural reality that renders us howlers in the wind.

Sometimes it’s also important to be reminded that your idea resonated and hit nerves. A couple of comments:

For those wondering whether what James and 80,000 hours are suggesting here is in fact possible and does in fact happen (in animal protection), the answer is *yes*. I highly encourage anyone who has the potential for high earning power (e.g., medicine, law, banking/high finance, consulting) to pursue the “earn to give” strategy.The longer version…I started pursuing the “earn to give” route after finishing school nearly a decade ago based on arguments of a fellow activist that I couldn’t logically rebut.At the time, many other activists I knew dismissed the idea, predicting I would either get corrupted / greedy and not donate the vast majority of money I earned, or get burnt out because the career I was pursuing wasn’t something I then had an inherent passion for. As I already knew before I started, the naysayers were wrong and I’m still at it today nearly $1M in donations later. I didn’t expect going this route to be fun, and for the most part it wasn’t. But fun wasn’t the point. There are other careers that I would have found more personally fulfilling (including working for an animal non-profit) but I couldn’t justify making a choice that would have yielded lower impact for animals. My only regret is not coming to the realization that this was the most effective (=obligatory) path sooner so that I could have engineered my education to pursue an even more lucrative career path.Thanks to James for bringing attention to this argument — provocative and perhaps counterintuitive — but more importantly: correct.


As a young animal rights activist who went through the unpaid internship and now works full-time at one of those underfunded organizations, I give this question a lot of thought. I’m fairly certain that I don’t have what it takes to succeed on Wall Street–if I did I would certainly go that route. To be honest, I don’t know how many young compassionate people there are in this movement–at its current state–who could actually become multi-millionaires or billionaires. Then again, it’d really only take one to make a difference! But even if we choose a career path that would put our earnings in the realm of 6 figures (not 7) instead of (a low) 5, we could pay the salaries of at least a few direct activists, essentially replacing ourselves and multiplying our impact. Of course, that’s assuming we wouldn’t increase our standard of living by much. To be honest, I’m afraid that if I had the money I’d be tempted to spend it on things like travel. The few people I know who “earn to give” are truly exceptional human beings who have a rare ability to live far, far below their means and make sacrifices that only the most driven people could. And there’s always the question of whether the skills and dedication we have are unique and valuable enough within this (still relatively small) movement to warrant staying in direct activism. Someone has to do that work — and do it really well. Another thought is that those of us in direct activism should perhaps consider dedicating more effort to earning the attention of the existing super-rich.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.


12 Responses to Advice To Young Animal Advocates: Okay, So Forget Wall Street, But Do Get Rich And Give Back

  1. We can win Wall street with vegan eats and a compelling plan.

  2. Anita Walsh says:

    The two responses you printed were really surprising ! While you are on the topic of career self-sacrifice, I wonder why there are not more folks; animal rights activists, willing to ‘throw themselves on the sword’, so to speak, in a political way… get into politics?

  3. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    I only know that I have worked in a volunteer capacity for over 25 years for the cause of animal welfare/protection and rights and have donated almost all my earnings from my profession as an Artist over those years to the point that I am now unable to afford to continue to do so. Now retired and caretaking beloved senior relatives consumes much valuable energy and remaining funds, but I could not have been true to myself had I not lived this passion to the full. I know that I am far from alone in this choice and am grateful to those in the Arts who do give considerably of their talent and name to further our Cause.

  4. Ben West says:

    Thanks for the post and bringing this important issue to light, James.

    To me, earning to give is the best of both worlds: I have a high status job, a fat paycheck, and I massively improve the world. What’s not to like?

    I think it’s kind of funny how the two main objections your commenters gave disagree with each other:

    1. What if I change and I become corrupted?
    2. What if I *don’t* change and I hate the work?

    If you have the first worry, I would point out that it’s entirely possible to contractually obligate yourself to donate money. If you have the second, I would point out that basically nobody does the same job when they retire as they did when they started – odds are you can adjust.

    I don’t think that earning to give is always the best career path for everyone. Many of the people I most admire get paid less than minimum wage and make a tremendous difference. But I would encourage everyone to consider what career will do the best, and to leverage resources like 80,000 Hours (or myself) to maximize their impact.

  5. Mountain says:

    Instead of going to Wall Street, young’uns could go work for the NSA. A million dollars a month goes a long way.

Leave a Reply