Blog post

Confessions of a Giving What We Can member - how the pledge saves lives

11 min read
26 Oct 2015

Unlike most hobbies and pastimes picked up in my university years, Giving What We Can has become a bigger part of my life over time. I first learnt of the organization when, as a frustrated medical student, I was browsing the web looking for a forum or community which would empathise with how I felt about the world. Even though I was studying to be a doctor, I felt that there was so much more I could be doing with my time and money that could actually save lives.

Giving What We Can appealed to me as a pragmatic and genuine way to do this. The standards they set for both charities and individuals who are serious about making a difference in the world, could have a huge impact on how the future of aid and development looks. The ethical arguments behind these standards are compelling, and so by joining Giving What We Can and attempting to live by the moral principle of 'doing the most good', I feel more comfortable in my decision making.

In this post, I will address some questions that you might have about the reasons for taking the pledge, and the impact of doing so on your life.

What do people think?

Since taking the pledge over a year ago, I have not told many people about it. This is mostly because I don’t really like talking about myself, fear coming across as self-righteous, and bringing up charity during social conversation can be a pretty difficult thing to do.

However, putting my own issues aside, and in the spirit of getting more people thinking about these issues, I finally wrote a post about Giving What We Can on my personal blog a few months ago. This received a mixed response. I know a lot of my friends read it, but did not comment or broach the subject with me afterwards. Some asked me more about my giving habits but left it at that. The positive comments I did receive were from people who either already knew about Giving What We Can, or those who liked me enough to say nice things.

Spurred on by the confidence I’d earned from writing about it, I later managed to bring up the topic with a hospital Consultant I work with. Her reaction was of utter horror – that I was giving away money instead of saving it for my family and future. Even though I hadn’t prescribed my values to her, she became defensive, gave me her views on the nature of charity, and then listed off all of the voluntary work she does in her spare time.

This simply confirmed what I already knew about the inherent beliefs that make people back away from such a pledge. When presented with the vision and mission statement of Giving What We Can, it is difficult to disagree with the basic premises behind them. [Extreme poverty should be eliminated. Supporting charities that do this in the most effective way ensures a much greater impact. We should be seeking out effective charities, and encouraging others to follow suit.]

Where people shut down is when a 10% pledge is mentioned. How can this organisation be suggesting that we all part with 10% of our income – on top of the outgoing expenses already seeping away in rent, bills and tax? How is anyone supposed to save up for a mortgage, or have any kind of social life? And actually, on second thought (because this is the point at which people start having second thoughts), doesn’t using ‘evidence’ and trying to be ‘effective’ seem like a rather cold and calculated way of being charitable?

What do we really value?

When personal finances come under threat, people often forget their beliefs about justice and equality. These knee-jerk responses may arise because we live in a society in which, knowingly or unknowingly, we measure our happiness, freedom and success based upon our financial freedom. We value having the choice of what to spend our money on, and how much we’ll spend; even if we know that we don’t necessarily make the wisest decisions in that process. Often, the decisions we make with respect to charitable giving are actually very poorly thought out, yet we never bear the consequences of those decisions and so still congratulate ourselves on the good we’ve done.

The money we spend can indicate something about what we value. If I buy a cappuccino for £2, I am stating that I place the value of the caffeine hit and foamy milk, and the absence of time cost of making my own coffee, as greater than £2. However, that is also the same cost of giving someone at risk of malaria a long-lasting insecticidal net, which could reduce that risk and contribute to an overall improvement of their life. Knowing this doesn't mean I always stop myself from buying non-essential items, but it does help put into context how little it can cost to make real impact. In the developed world, we don’t have to be heroes to save lives; we can in fact save lives in the developing world at a fairly low expense to ourselves.

The ugly truth that surfaces when we start thinking in these terms is that we place a greater value on our lifestyle than on other people’s lives. We can only do this because we happen to be on the right side of the poverty line, and hence seemingly exist in an entirely different world from those on the other side.

We sidestep this problem using some common excuses. For example, some people argue that foreign aid isn’t efficacious – which is a reasonable concern, but one that should lead one to investigate how to maximise effectiveness, rather than closing that door completely. As illustrated by Giving What We Can, there are plenty of options available.

Others argue that charity should begin at home; either by being generous with those in your circle, or by giving to local charities. Whilst it is understandable that emotional bonds might lead you to make certain value judgements, this does not mean you have no moral responsibility to the wider world. People often assume that they only have finite resources to spend on others; but in our personal lives, we can usually find extra time and money to spend on new family members, friends, or local charity initiatives. The fact that the potential impact of giving to charities in the developing world is far greater than when giving locally means that we should be expanding our circles to include those who need this generosity the most.

Thinking about effectiveness doesn’t need to be cold-hearted – in fact it takes a great deal more empathy to be caring about people on the other side of the world, who lead such different lives.

What about the future?

Many young people decide that it’s more sensible to save up as much money as possible in the early part of their careers when their income is probably at its lowest. They argue that it makes more sense to first invest in their own future and then give to charity later, when they will have a larger bank balance and the financial security to be able to do so.

Although this sounds reasonable, I believe that, for people who are genuinely interested in giving money to charity, it is not the best strategy. I’ve set out a few reasons below, but if you’re interested, this paper highlights more points from both sides of the argument pretty well.

Firstly, you never know how your priorities will change. You might decide to have children, or acquire responsibilities that require money to be set aside. As possibilities increase, giving to charity may no longer feature high up on your radar. Getting into the practice of giving to charity early on makes it easier to smoothly incorporate it into your routine, such that having a baby or a mortgage later on doesn't become another excuse not to give. It's perfectly possible to combine charity with these other commitments if it's made into enough of a priority.

Secondly, an increase in earnings over time is usually accompanied by a more extravagant lifestyle and set of needs. Society expects people to adapt to their salary so that there is always a need to continue striving for a higher pay. Although this is a pretty good way of motivating people to work harder, it means that the deadline to start giving to charity gets pushed further and further away. Setting proportionate charitable giving as a part of lifestyle early on, means that, alongside the motivation to earn more for oneself, there is an added motivation of earning to also give more.

Thirdly, being part of the movement whilst young can provide many opportunities for personal growth and improvement of skills. By joining Giving What We Can, I have met a variety of motivated, intelligent and hard-working people with a passion to make the world a better place. I agree wholeheartedly with entrepreneur Jim Rohn when he said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

I have made a resolution to try and attend more events organised by effective altruists, and take part in the debates and conversations that allow us all to grow and improve individually and collectively. I had the chance to attend the Effective Altruism Global conference on 28th-30th August 2015, where I met people from various disciplines who had become interested in ‘doing good’, and hence were using their backgrounds to contribute to a better future. Not only did I learn about the range of problems that the world faced (being a medic can be rather isolating), but I also learnt a bit more about how my own skills and ideas could fit into this.

Why sign up?


The 10% suggestion is simply a target value for those who are serious about giving. If that seems too high, a more easily digestible 1% starting point is recommended. The idea is that once you start allocating a portion of your money to charity, you stop seeing it as a ‘big deal’, and slowly realise that it doesn’t eat away at your lifestyle nearly as much as you’d have expected it to.

If every month you were making a conscious decision to give away £300, this could seem like a pretty big sacrifice. Once you’ve made the pledge, on the other hand, you can set up your charitable donation to leave your account automatically, and continue to budget for a lifestyle that never included that portion of money. There’s less of a sense of giving your money away, and more of a sense of setting some aside for a cause larger than your own wants and desires.

Why 10%? It’s an amount that’s enough to require a certain degree of commitment, without being too difficult to achieve. Many Giving What We Can members pledge a higher percentage than this; or choose to always give anything they earn above a certain value.

Once you start giving, it becomes a good kind of addictive habit, and you are more likely to continue to give larger and larger amounts over your lifetime - another reason to start early. This is not only because through giving effectively, you learn how far the money can go, but also because the return on your own personal satisfaction usually leads to more motivation to keep on giving. Don’t underestimate the impact of charitable giving on one’s baseline amount of happiness – it’s been repeatedly shown to be a lot more powerful than spending on oneself.

And why take a ‘pledge’? By joining Giving What We Can and identifying yourself as part of a larger group, it is easier to maintain motivation to act in the way you believe you should. Whilst living in the expensive city of London, where it can sometimes feel like most people are striving towards a lifestyle they don’t yet have, I’ve found it a lot easier to stay committed to this idea by having the knowledge that over 1000 people throughout the world buy into it. Many are actively involved in ways others than donating; some are actively involved in the growth of the charity and its research; many go into high-paying careers in order to contribute huge portions of their income, and others are spreading the word through blogs, books, and TED talks. All of this helps me stay inspired.

Final thoughts

This year, I set aside £6000 of my earnings to charity; about 20% of what I have received from my junior doctor salary. I can’t say that in this first year as a doctor, my presence has been enough to ‘save’ any lives, but I believe that my charity donations may well have.

By stating this fact, I am not attempting to show off – I feel that I can be doing a lot better – but rather showing that it can be done. I am not struggling financially as a result, and have added to my quality of life rather than detracted from it. It has also given me more sense of perspective on what matters. Rather than feeling guilty when I spend on myself or my family, I feel happier knowing that I have contributed to the lives of others as well.

Currently, Giving What We Can recommends global health charities, which they believe to be the most effective at improving lives. Many other types of charities are difficult to evaluate due to difficult follow-up, uncertain outcomes and very long term aims. This can seem problematic for people who feel very strongly about particular causes, such as climate change or female empowerment.

Although I do support the Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control initiative (the top recommended charities by GWWC) as two of my main recipient charities, I also distribute my money to causes I have reason to believe are effective, but more difficult to evaluate due to the nature of their work.

For example, the neglect of psychiatric conditions as a global health priority despite the high morbidity it causes means that this area needs a lot more attention – but cannot be treated simply with a pill or a bednet. Giving money to causes that aren’t as ‘direct’ at saving lives needn’t make my giving less effective – as long as I feel that I have sufficiently researched them and am confident about the possible gains that they might produce.

For people fortunate enough to be working in a well-paid job in the developed world, the principles of this movement are worth considering. Indeed, I believe that the biggest benefit of being part of Giving What We Can is the exposure to a refreshing way of thinking about the world. To think about what your impact is every time you put £10 towards charity, rather than a pizza. To ask yourself what kind of world you want to live in, and how you’re going to contribute towards that. By a small shift in our perspectives regarding the value of our money, we can make a huge impact. Through this shift, we can galvanise other people, charities and global organizations to become leaner and more effective – making the value of one’s contribution much greater than the purely financial effect.