Erwan Atcheson: Why I'm giving 10% of my income to charity

In this guest blog, a PhD student explains why he decided to pledge 10 per cent of his income to effective charities - and why you should too

Erwan Atcheson
Erwan Atcheson

How do you turn someone with almost no interest in charity, who is convinced that change is impossible, into someone who is passionate about charitable giving, gives 10 per cent of their income to charity, is nerdish to the point of obsessive on the technical details of mass deworming programmes and who uses as much of their spare time as possible persuading others to follow suit?

Get them to listen to this 2010 talk by Toby Ord, an Oxford academic who plans to give £1m to charity in his lifetime.

Yes, I can reveal that I was that jaded and cynical young man from the first paragraph. No longer: I'm now a satisfied member of Giving What We Can, a community of people who donate 10 per cent of their income to the most effective organisations in the world.

Like 2,500 other members, I pledged 10 per cent of my income to wherever I think it will do the most good. In my case, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiativea non-profit initiative housed at Imperial College London. People in this tiny group of pledge-takers, spread all over the world, have already donated £16m to highly effective charities with the promise of an astonishing £1.1bn to come. Many members were previously like me: uninterested in, uninformed about and unengaged with the charitable sector.

So how did Toby do it?

The talk is what you might expect from an Oxford academic: calmly delivered, well-researched, clear and logical. Plenty of graphs. None of the kind of suspicious charisma, props or stunts we might usually associate with attempts to persuade someone to make a radical life change. It was by force of reason alone that Dr Ord delivered his point: charitable giving works, we can be confident in averting massive suffering by giving to highly effective charities and telling others will have a multiplying effect on the good you do.

It was the second point that initially persuaded me to give: effective charities exist and which you give to is as important as giving itself. Ord makes the initial point most clearly by comparing different blindness interventions: "Suppose we have a $40,000 [£33,000] budget, which we can spend as we wish to fight blindness. One thing we could do is to provide guide dogs to blind people. This costs about $40,000."

Another option is to pay for surgeries to reverse the effects of trachoma in Africa. This costs less than $20 (£16) per patient cured. So we could use our entire budget to provide a single guide dog, helping one person overcome the challenges of blindness, or we could use it to cure more than 2,000 people of blindness. If we think that people have equal moral value, then the second option is more than 2,000 times better than the first."

This was revolutionary to me: reason and evidence could be used to radically change the world for the better! The charity evaluator GiveWell is a fantastic resource for wonderful detail about which charities let you do the most good with your money. The following charities come out top: the Against Malaria Foundation, distributing insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria, andthe Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, facilitating deworming programmes in sub-Saharan Africa.

The persuasive point, however, was simply this: I can do vastly more good by donating 10 per cent of my income (to SCI) than by keeping it for myself. While there is a lot of uncertainty in these numbers, one rough estimate is that I can avert the equivalent of 40 unnecessary deaths in my lifetime. Forty lives, for what in practice amounts to little or no change in my lifestyle.

But it is the third part, telling others, that keeps me engaged. This is the most exciting opportunity to do good that I'm aware of. In one sense, if I persuade one other person to pledge, I've doubled my impact. If I persuade one extra person per year for the rest of my life, that's 1,600 "lives saved" instead of 40. Giving What We Can, from fewer than 60 members in 2010, has now grown to nearly 2,600. There is no evidence of a slowdown; indeed, the number of new pledges is growing at an exponential rate. Most of the new membership seems to come from friends telling their friends. You can help!

Erwan Atcheson is a PhD student working on developing a malaria vaccine at Oxford University and a member of Giving What We Can

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