Funding social change with giving offsets

I’ve long been fascinated by the simple concept of carbon offsets. A carbon offset is an arrangement where corporations “offset” their polluting by purchasing carbon credits that fund the development of renewable energy.

Without getting into the policy particulars of carbon offsets, the concept is straight forward and intuitive. Carbon offsets got me thinking about offsets more generally. Corporations, and individuals, do a lot more than just pollute the planet. Why isn’t there some sort of giving offset for everything?

While I was compiling my list of nonprofits to donate to for my year end giving I ran an experiment to see what an individual donor giving offset might look like.

Building a giving offset

For my personal finances I use the popular account aggregation service Mint. Since my finances are consolidated in Mint I figured it would be convenient to base my giving offset calculations using a transaction history exported from its website.

To automate the process of logging in and extracting transactions from Mint I used the excellent Python library mintapi. Mint conveniently categorizes all financial transactions, so I mapped each Mint category to a cause. For example, pet related transactions were assigned to animal related causes, education expenses were assigned to education causes, restaurant purchases were mapped to hunger, etc.

Based on the mapping of Mint categories to giving offsets, the system I built recommended I allocate my charitable giving for 2015 according to the following chart.


Given the current mapping and my personal spending habits, by far the largest offset recommendation is in the “Poverty and homelessness” category followed by “Food and hunger”. Readers of Full Contact Philanthropy might rightly wonder whether the current mapping is “fair”, or whether it instead reflects my own bias toward investing in poverty related issues. I don’t know the answer to this question, but my guess there’s a fair amount of bias (isn’t there in everything?).

Since Mint data extracts include one’s entire transaction history, not just the most recent year, I also ran the giving offset recommendations over the last few years as shown below.


As you can see from the above graph, there’s a fair amount of change in my giving offset recommendations from 2011 through today. Around 2013 suggested giving to animal causes grew considerably, reflecting vet bills one of my chihuahuas has been racking up the last few years. And yes, I took the giving offset’s advice and added animal related causes to my giving portfolio.

What now?

I’m not sure a giving offset is a good idea. I’m also not sure it’s a bad idea. I think in some ways I’ve only recently fully accepted and moved on from the closure of my last company Idealistics. This acceptance has resulted in a flurry of ideas and activity around those ideas (reflected partly in more writing on this site). The giving offset is one of those ideas.

However, I am committed to trying out various new ideas and putting those ideas out in public rather than keeping them to myself. I generally like the idea of charitable giving reflecting the life one leads and trying to offset selfish spending by re-investing in the world. I have some thoughts on how one might approach a more robust version of a giving offset, but I’m hardly married to the idea. What do you think?