On giving

You know the old holiday saying that it’s better to give than to receive? Well, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in connection with a recent BBC radio segment (link here) on a new initiative called Giving What We Can.

Giving What We Can (website link here) is a group of some 60 individuals who have pledged to donate 10 percent of their total income until retirement to efforts addressing poverty and suffering in the developing world. The campaign was started by a young Oxford University researcher named Toby Ord. Here’s a snippet from Tom Geoghegan’s BBC story:

Toby Ord, 31, has in the past year given more than a third of his earnings, £10,000, to charities working in the poorest countries. He also gave away £15,000 of savings, as the start of his pledge to give away £1m over his lifetime.

And he’s started a campaign to recruit, Bill Gates-style, other people to give up at least 10% of their lifetime’s earnings in the same way. A year on, 64 people have joined his movement Giving What We Can and pledged £14m.

Ord is not claiming to have taken an oath of poverty. As the piece explains, he and his wife Bernadette Young, a physician who has joined him in taking the pledge, live modestly but comfortably in Oxford. In fact, they believe that many people in developed nations can make this commitment without experiencing severe hardship.

The Problem

It is hard to contest GWWC’s basic premise: People making decent incomes in developed nations are the most economically privileged on earth. (Doubts? Check out the GWWC “How Rich Am I?” calculator, here.) For those of us who enjoy relative comforts of home and hearth, our everyday financial challenges pale in comparison to those who are experiencing unimaginable hunger, deprivation, and want. From the GWWC website, here are the stakes:

Of the 6.7 billion people in the world today:

  • 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 per day
  • 1 billion of these live on less than $1 per day
  • More than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water
  • More than 800 million people go to bed hungry each day
  • More than 6 million children die each year from preventable diseases
  • More than 100 million children are not getting even a basic education
  • More than 800 million adults cannot read or write


The 10 percent figure draws upon the concept of tithing, which has roots in religious faiths:

Indeed, the idea of giving 10% to the poor has been with us since ancient times (when the givers were much poorer than we are today) and still exists in many religious circles in the form of tithing.

I am not sufficiently versed in sacred texts to identify exactly where and how the idea of tithing appears, but an informative Wikipedia article on tithing will help you fill those gaps.

Who has pledged?

Notably, the list of Giving What We Can members (link here) appears to be long on younger grad student-types and short on lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, and CEOs in the heart of their careers. Does this mean that GWWC is a passing fancy, a product of idealistic youth? Perhaps. Some of its members may drop out when mortgages and family obligations put greater pressure on their personal finances.

But I have a feeling that GWWC is more than that. At this point in its young life, GWWC has an unassuming seriousness of purpose and a moral core about it. For that reason, GWWC may have a strong appeal to people who are older and more financially secure, especially empty nesters and single folks who have nest eggs. While the thought of donating a tenth of one’s income at that stage in life may be daunting in terms of gross amounts, the idea of making a difference in this way can be deeply meaningful — especially when one understands the impact of even modest donations in the developing world.

It’s about choice, not guilt

What impresses me about Giving What We Can is the tone of commitment and reason, not preachiness and guilt. I’ve sent away for information and will be giving this serious consideration. I haven’t yet committed to taking the pledge — I want to get a better sense of the guidelines defining what counts as a qualifying donation and how my current charitable commitments fit into that scheme.  We’ll see.

For folks struggling to pay the rent, looking for work, or wondering how they’ll be able to pay their kids’ tuition bills, Giving What We Can may not be a viable option. But others may be looking for meaningful ways to give back. This is a worthy possibility toward that end.


The Giving What We Can website contains a ton of thoughtful content on philanthropic giving. It’s worth a serious look even if this particular pledge is not appropriate for you right now.

%d bloggers like this: