Did you grow up believing you could change the world? I did. Whether this was due to my parents’ particular brand of hippy idealism or simply a mark of my generation, I was sure one person could make a difference. I even chose a college based partly on their marketing slogan: “Think one person can change the world? So do we.”
But upon arriving at college, I quickly lost faith in that belief. The “make a difference” opportunities available to me were largely limited to “raising awareness” about various issues by sitting at a table in a public place and accosting passersby.
I think my story is fairly common. How many of us are raised with “youthful idealism” only to be rudely awakened to the “reality” that comes with growing up? At least that’s the story we are often told — that “making a difference” is just a naive pipe dream. But is it?
Of course, history shows us a handful of exceptions. Norman Borlaug, who pioneered high-yield and disease-resistant wheat, is credited with preventing mass famine, saving up to a billion lives. Another, lesser-known example is Viktor Zhdanov, who proposed and successfully lobbied for a global campaign to eradicate smallpox, a disease that was then taking around 2 million lives per year. Then there are high-profile pioneers like Martin Luther King Jr and Mohandas Gandhi, both of whom are very well-known for bringing about substantial — even revolutionary — societal change.
But these were exceptional individuals, of course. To truly make a difference, do we need to tackle the world’s biggest problems with the courage of Gandhi, the intelligence of Borlaug, the determination of Zhdanov, and the luck of being in the right place at the right time?
In other words, can ordinary people like you and me really have much of an impact?
It turns out we can. And it doesn’t have to involve risking our lives, overthrowing a political regime, or curing a deadly virus epidemic. All we need is the desire to make a difference and the foresight to think carefully about it.
Let me explain.
If you are reading this, you probably know that you’d like to make a difference. But many of us are unaware of our extraordinary power to do so.
The philosopher Peter Singer’s now famous “drowning child” thought experiment gets at this disconnect between desire and action:
Imagine you are walking by a pond on your way to work or school, and you see a drowning child. You can jump in and rescue the child, but you would ruin your clothes in the process. Do you save the child?
The answer, for most of us, is a resounding yes! Of course we would rescue the child, even if we were wearing an expensive suit or designer shoes. And we would feel pretty great about it too. After all, saving a life is not a bad way to spend a morning.
Singer then points out that there are “drowning children” all over the world, and although we aren’t literally walking by them, we can help save their lives. A staggering number of children die every day from causes like diarrhea and malaria. Cheap and effective interventions exist to prevent these deaths, and we can help fund them.
In other words, we can be the difference between people receiving treatment or going unaided. And we can do so with sums that most would consider to be far less than the value of a human life.
At this point, you may be raising a series of practical objections: Can my actions be anything more than a drop in the bucket given the scale of the problem? Will my actions really matter if others do nothing?
Or perhaps you’re thinking: This is all well and good for the ultra-wealthy. But I’m just an ordinary person earning a modest salary! How much difference could I really make?
Let’s address that last question first, because its answer explains what gives many of us such extraordinary power to help others.
If you’re like me, you likely don’t think of yourself as rich. But because of the vast differences between wealthy and lower-income countries, those of us earning a modest income in wealthy countries usually fall within the top 1.5% of income earners worldwide. You can see exactly how you stack up here.
Visualisation by Rota Kalnina
Additionally, Will McAskill, a co-founder of Giving What We Can and author of the book Doing Good Better, explains that these drastic income discrepancies allow our money to go as much as 100x further when sent to lower-income countries.
That’s like turning $100 into $10,000!
You might still wonder why you should act when others aren’t, especially given the scale of the world’s problems. With so much suffering in the world, are your individual actions likely to make a difference? To address these objections, let’s return to the drowning child thought experiment.
Suppose now that many people are witnessing the drowning child and most are just walking past the pond, not doing anything to help. Does this affect your decision to rescue the child? If you’re like the people Singer asked, it probably doesn’t.
Now let’s imagine that there are many children drowning and you can only save one. Would you still do it? If you would, chances are you agree that your action would make a difference. Otherwise, wouldn’t you just walk by the pond, ignoring the children? (If you’re not convinced, imagine that someone has saved your child from drowning. Would you think that they made a difference?)
Of course, by combining the power of comparative wealth with effective giving, our impact can potentially be much greater. But for now, I want to recognize that saving even one life is a pretty significant accomplishment. After all, that’s someone’s daughter, or mother, or father, or grandparent.
So the truth that we can’t help everyone everywhere doesn’t lessen our ability to help those we can. In fact, by putting our money where it has the greatest impact, we can make a very significant difference.
We’ve now covered the desire to make a difference. Let’s discuss the second part of the equation: the foresight to think carefully about it.
While we’re used to applying rigorous analysis to decisions like where to invest, whether to buy or rent, or which brand of appliance to purchase, charitable giving often gets lumped into a vague “hope this is doing something!” bucket.
If we want to make a difference, though, it stands to reason that we should think carefully about the causes and organisations we support. In fact, our impact can vary substantially based on where we choose to donate. Just like some investments offer greater returns than others, a highly-effective charity can be 10 or even 100 times more impactful than an average one.
This means that depending on where we donate, we can accomplish with just one donation what it might otherwise take 100 equally-sized donations to achieve.
Combine these extraordinary giving opportunities with the comparative wealth we discussed earlier and it’s clear that one person can make an incredible difference in the lives of others. For example, GiveWell estimates that $4,500 donated to one of their top charities would result in a life being saved.
Visualisation by Rota Kalnina
To know where to donate, we don’t necessarily have to do the countless hours of research required to measure an organization’s impact. Places like GiveWell, The Life You Can Save, and of course — our team here at Giving What We Can — put out yearly lists of giving recommendations based on stringent research that assesses the efficacy of programs/interventions.
In addition to our extraordinary power to make a difference as individuals, we can also leverage the power of giving publicly to maximize our impact. By publicly donating to highly-effective charities, we can help bring about a systemic shift in the way people in wealthy countries think about their power to help others.
To see how this could play out, let’s return to the pond with the drowning child, and the numerous people who are just walking by. This time, though, when you jump in and take the child out, one of these passersby sees you do it. And they realize they can do it too.
Changing the culture of giving — making it commonplace for ordinary people living in wealthy countries to donate some portion of their income to highly effective charities — would be a significant societal shift. And by giving publicly, you can be part of that systemic change. If that sounds overly idealistic, consider this: Even if your actions only motivate one other person, you could double your (already significant) impact. That’s nothing to scoff at!
Evidence-backed global poverty interventions — while incredibly effective at saving both child and adult lives — are far from the only avenue to make a difference. Check out this list of cause areas that we think offer outstanding giving opportunities along with this thought-provoking piece by the organization 80,000 Hours, which explores how to make a difference with your career.
So let’s go back to the belief that one person can make a difference. It’s true that this can end up being a pipe dream. But if we combine our inherent desire to make a difference with the careful thinking needed to make it happen, it turns out there are easy, concrete steps we can take to positively impact many lives over the course of our lifetime — merging our vision of an ideal world with the realistic, evidence-based actions that could help get us there.