PGI Picks #7: A Book That Makes You Think Differently About Giving

The Life You Can Save challenges us to see the opportunity that we are given every day to have a significant positive impact on another person’s life.

By Oliver Lovell

Bayu via Unsplash

Being the season of giving we decided to explore how one book caused a group of friends to think of giving in a different way.

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?

This above excerpt is from the book The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer. Peter’s book challenges us to see the opportunity that we are given every day to have a significant positive impact on another person’s life for the price of a pair of shoes. He invites us to take a pledge to give away some percentage of our income from the each year to those living in extreme poverty. This book, and the thought experiment therein, had a profound impact in the way I see the world and the role and value of money in it. I came across it through this clip that I got in an email, I ended up buying 5 copies of the book and loaning them to friends, family and colleagues.

Out of the discussions that ensued one of my friends suggested that we start a club and take the pledge together. And thus, in December of 2012, the 10% club was born. We chose the 10% figure because we felt that it was manageable for us at the same time as being generous. Peter Singer has a pledge calculator in The Life You Can Save website that works on a sliding scale and suggests a figure that he thinks would be manageable for given income brackets. For us, the level suggested by the website is around 1% per year, but we felt we could afford more.

We meet four times a year (we call it summer giving, autumn giving, spring giving, and winter giving), share a meal, tally our income from the previous quarter and celebrate our donation. It’s a great excuse to catch up with a group of friends on a quarterly basis, and we all support each other to make the world a better place. I thought that it would be nice to share some thoughts and reflections of some of the members of the 10% club. Hopefully the following short pieces will give an insight into the motivations for, and the benefits of getting together to support each other in giving.

Hannah’s reflections:

We are all on low incomes and in our own country would probably be considered poor, however it is incredible how much money we have collectively donated by setting aside a fixed percentage of what we earn. I have found it makes no difference to our quality of life, but so much difference to the people who receive the money, mosquito nets, worming treatment and other low cost-high benefit interventions. For my family donating money felt like the next logical step in an effort to live simply and ethically. Up until the time we started the club we were mainly focusing on making the most ethical food and consumer choices possible. We buy mainly organic food, we eat almost exclusively vegan, only buy second hand or recycled clothes and toys… We’ve found donating money another easy way, along with consumer choices, to make a difference to people and the planet. With plans to slash Australia’s foreign aid budget, it seems to me particularly relevant for people to donate their personal income. I find it empowering to think that civilians alone could significantly reduce world poverty by donating a fraction of what they earn!

Jack’s reflections:

After reading Peter Singers’ ‘the life you can save’ for the first time, I felt overwhelmed and moved to do what I could to alleviate some of the suffering caused by poverty in the world. I had this thought for several days, and then it was replaced by priorities and I didn’t act on my feelings for well over a year. I don’t remember the catalyst the second time around, but I picked up the book once more, read it, thought about it, felt ashamed that I did nothing the first time, and decided to act. I grew up hearing that ‘charity begins at home’, that we should help those around us and our fellow countrymen above all others. As an adult I reject this idiom. I feel that we are all equal, and this act of giving what I can, is an act of solidarity. Often I have heard from various sources, and having worked for charitable organisations myself, that they can be quite ineffective when spending money, I chose to therefore follow the lead of Peter Singer and use a charity evaluator to help me make the most effective donation that I can. Giving 10% of my income does not affect my standard of living, I simply budget it into my family’s expenses as I do with rent, food etc. In fact, I treat our giving as a past time, focal point of my life and an opportunity to share a life changing activity (for us and others) with friends.

The charity evaluator that Jack talks about is GiveWell. GiveWell is a charity evaluation/ratings agency that performs in depth analysis of the success or otherwise of many of the worlds charities. As a group we generally allocate our money as 70%, 20%, 10% to the top 3 rated charities by givewell. This helps us avoid debates about who to give to, and it helps us to know that we’re being effective in our giving and getting the biggest bang for our buck.

My reflections:

Over the years I have become more and more aware of the power that social norms have on our behaviour and view of the world. To me, being a part of a group that makes a habit of helping those in need is an excellent way to use the power of social norms to become the person that I want to be.

I recall Jack once saying “If I ran across the road and saved a kid from an oncoming truck, I’d be hailed a hero and I would die knowing I’d done a good deed in my life. We don’t see it, but that’s exactly what we’re doing here, saving lives”. But is Jack right?

In our first year we’ve given $7 929 USD, not bad for 4 university students, 2 first time parents and a baby! It’s amazing how quickly it’s added up! The charity that we’ve given the majority of our donations to to date is the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). According to GiveWell AMF has a cost per life saved of about $3 400. Of course this is very much a ballpark figure, but at $6.13 per mosquito net we’ve no doubt helped hundreds of people have a better sleep at night.

For me our 10% club is an excellent model for charity. It’s a measured approach that ensures that our giving is regular, generous and effective. It strengthens our friendship group and gives us a shared sense of achievement. I’m grateful to have come across Peter Singer’s book and to have such a great group of friends to be able to take action with.

GiveDirectly is currently GiveWell’s top rated charity and this holiday season Good Ventures is matching any donation to GiveDirectly dollar for dollar. It’s a great time to make a contribution. We note the parallels between the approach of GiveDirectly and Free Money Day.

Originally published in December 2013. To Find out more about the Post Growth Institute, visit our website.

Post Growth

Guiding the way to a full circle, #postgrowth economy…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store