Saturday, December 18, 2010

December 18, 2010 ~ Day 9
The Power of 10%

Could you commit to giving 10% of all of your earnings from now until the day you finally retire to help desperately poor people around the world? (In my case that would be at least 30 years of annual giving.) If you knew that you were bringing food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, healthcare to the sickly, hope to the downtrodden and life to those who might otherwise lose it... could you make the 10% sacrifice? Permanently? Even in times of economic downturn or unexpected personal need?

This is the question explored in depth by native Australian Toby Ord and the other members of GivingWhatWeCan.Org, an international group bound together by the ethical and economic commitment to give a minimum of 10% of all of their current and future income until retirement to humanitarian groups and aid organizations where they think their money can do the most to eliminate poverty in the developing world. So far the 64 members of this organization - who hail from nine countries around the globe - have given more than $22 million dollars to accomplish this goal.

Ord , 30, currently attends the University of Oxford where he is a postdoctoral research fellow in ethics. He describes the inception of his idea: “I discovered that by donating most of my future income to the most efficient charities, I could save around 500,000 years of healthy life. Since I already had most of the things I value in life on my student stipend, I realised that my money would do vastly more good for others than it could for me and decided to make a commitment to donating to the most effective charities I could find. Many people contacted me asking how they could do this as well, and so I set up Giving What We Can.”

Giving What We Can focuses solely on aiding the world’s poorest nations because the members feel that is where their money can stretch the farthest to do the most good. On their website they give the example of blindness. In the United States it apparently costs upward of $50,000 (really?!) to train one guide dog and also teach its recipient how to best use that dog. This stands in stark contrast to the effect of using the same dollar amount to provide inexpensive, effective eye surgery for people in developing countries. For the same money, “We could cure enough people of Trachoma-induced blindness to prevent a total of 2,600 years of blindness.” In a smaller scale example, if a dollar can buy a single hamburger in our country it will stretch much, much further to create meals for multiple people in the Third World.

There is also a more emotional, evocative argument for giving now. “If we wait to fix our own problems, we may wait forever... If we can’t help those far less fortunate than ourselves now, when will we?”
This is a very good and realistic point, from my perspective as a middle class United States citizen. When I was younger, I thought I should wait to give major funds to charity until I was older and more established. Now that I am actually older and settled, there are so many more things pulling upon our family finances than I ever would have imagined! From diapers to clothing and shoes, healthy food for a family of five (why oh why are vegetables more expensive than corn syrup!), a family car, medical expenses and maintaining a home in a safe neighborhood... we have less discretionary funds now than we have ever had. It isn’t likely to change anytime soon, either. Down the road I foresee braces for the kids, sports and artistic activities, music and language lessons, vehicles and insurance, college tuition and then our own home and retirement expenses to consider.

So, if we don’t make a commitment to give now, I really don’t know when we will ever find a “better” time to donate a significant part of our income.

My husband and I went onto the Giving What We Can website today to take a ‘look around’ and were quite surprised to learn thanks to their helpful How Rich You Are tool that despite how thinly our budget is stretched each month with our three children and their seemingly infinite needs, we still fall within the top 10% of the world’s wealthiest people. This is quite eye-opening, as we typically compare ourselves to the community in which we actually live... not to communities half a world away that we have never seen.

In fact, the impact that our family alone could make is quite startling. Using their What You Can Achieve tool, we learned that by donating 10% of our current income per year for the rest of our lives, even assuming no increase in my husband's salary, we could save over a thousand lives and produce well over one hundred thousand hours of school attendance and general health. 1000 lives!

I’m not sure if our family is ready to make the 10% commitment yet -- especially when our church would love to see us make a similar 10% lifetime commitment to them as well -- but I do feel that Giving What We Can is very well thought out, highly researched organization dedicated to doing true good for humanity. I want to do my part to spread the word about their website and pledge... perhaps one day our family will join the ever-growing list of names around the world of regular people just like you and me who have committed to love and provide for their fellow man as generously as possible.

The members of Giving What We Can are often asked why they focus solely on poverty when other issues including climate change are of equally vital importance. They answer that the burden of climate change is likely to fall squarely on the backs of the world’s desperately poor people, who will suffer much more quickly and significantly than wealthier citizens who are able to make changes in their home, career, lifestyle and medical care to ameliorate the effects of climate change. That said, the group agrees that if a member is sincerely convinced that working to prevent catastrophic climate change is the best way to make a significant difference in the lives of the world’s poor, it would be acceptable to give pledged funds to environmental foundations..

I listened to Toby Ord speaking on NPR today about giving and his words really rang true for me. As Ord says, “As an undergraduate, I often argued with my friends about political and ethical matters. I regularly received the retort: ‘if you believe that, why don't you just give most of your money to people starving in Africa?’ This was meant to show that my position was absurd, but as time passed and I thought more about ethics, I found the conclusion increasingly sensible: if my money could help others much more than it helps me, then why not?”

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