We Could End Most of the World’s Suffering Tomorrow…

Image Credit: My wife. (Tacloban, Philippines)

We could eliminate most of the suffering in the world tomorrow without spending another dime, but we’re not interested in doing it.

I know what you’re thinking. No, I’m not crazy. And, yes, I really believe that’s true. But maybe I should introduce myself before I go too much further. I am in many ways, a very normal American guy. In my twenties I worked my way through business school and got a normal career job — using data to sell more storage bags and all-purpose cleaner for a big company. I like watching football and spending time with my (now pregnant) wife. I’ve got blue collar Midwestern roots, and I now live in Austin, Texas.

What might be different about me is that I responded to the itch I think we’ve all gotten at least once — the one that tells us to take a risk, leave it all behind, and try to do something more meaningful. Scratching that itch for me meant leaving my secure job and moving to the Philippines to work for free on an anti-human trafficking project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It would be my first time in Asia.

It was a fortuitous first year abroad, and before I knew it, this simple kid from the heartland had become the Co-founder and Executive Director of an international anti-human trafficking organization. This in itself is an interesting story, but it isn’t the most important one I have to tell.

The story behind the story

That story, the important one, really started with a nagging concern I developed soon into my time as Executive Director. We were sourcing our funding from the United States, and I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t help but constantly wonder if the funding that was now mostly coming from generous individuals back home would otherwise be going to other non-profits possibly doing even better, more efficient work than we were.[1]

And one particular statistic began to haunt me. Americans were giving away 2% of GDP philanthropically in 1970, and despite the best efforts of the exploding number of non-profit organizations, CEOs, and Development Officers asking people for funding since then,[2] Americans are still giving away only 2% of GDP today.[3] Despite their best efforts, the giving pie is relatively small.

So I began to ask myself what’s proven to be a controversial question: if giving is a constant percentage of GDP regardless of the level of fundraising effort, wouldn’t it follow that the billions of dollars spent on these fundraising efforts could otherwise go to life-saving programs? And if so, wouldn’t making the best choices about how we give away our money be the best thing we could do to make a difference?

How we’re getting it wrong

Today, the world contains 767 million people living in extreme poverty[4] — daily consuming less than what $1.90 would buy them in the United States. When we apply the same methods used by researchers to identify absolute poverty internationally, the number of Americans living under the $1.90 per day line drops to zero.[5]

In 2015, Americans gave away $373 Billion,[6] quite possibly enough to relieve every one of those 767 million people from the daily suffering of extreme poverty, but sadly, a vast majority of our giving reaches nowhere near anyone suffering from extreme poverty. In 2015, only 6%[7] of the money Americans gave away ever left our country to even have the chance of helping the hundreds of millions of people who need it most.

The reason those who suffer the most in this world aren’t being relieved of their suffering is not just because the giving pie is small. It is because we give away our 1%, 2% or 10% to almost whatever we stumble upon — to whichever Development Officer or CEO we meet or know personally, the one whose kids go to our kids’ school, the one who goes to our church, or the one with whom we have a mutual friend. And most of those CEOs and Development Officers are working on projects that don’t benefit anyone anywhere near the world’s most needy.

So what?

In a culture where we make almost every other monetary decision after a rigorous look at cost benefit analysis and return on investment, evidence suggests almost none of us apply the same thought process to philanthropy. The result is a laundry list of missed opportunities and ongoing suffering for the world’s poor.

So I’ve started down the rabbit hole — one that has disappointed me, convicted me and frankly, made my life more difficult for me to live. But I have to go deeper. I don’t think it will be easy to write or to read, but if you are interested in coming with me, I’m convinced the hard conversations and the changes we make as a result of them, can relieve some seriously true suffering in this world, resulting in a deeper joy for you and me…and all it will cost is an open mind and a willingness to question philanthropy as we know it.

[1] I should note that the organization was — and still is — doing deeply significant, impactful work.

[2] Over 90% of non-profits in existence today were started since 1950 — https://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/phall/Herman-CH1.pdf

[3] https://www.philanthropy.com/article/The-Stubborn-2-Giving-Rate/154691

[4] http://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/poverty-and-shared-prosperity

[5] http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/08/27/extreme_poverty_in_america_how_many_live_on_less_than_2_per_day.html

[6] https://givingusa.org/see-the-numbers-giving-usa-2016-infographic/

[7] https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm/bay/content.view/cpid/42

(Please forgive the occasional use of secondary sources — I still have a day job)