Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

In a 1972 essay called Fame, Affluence and Morality, Peter Singer, the philosopher and intellectual leader of the Effective Altruism movement, wrote:

 If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it.

Nearly 40 years later, Singer made a similar argument in the form of a thought experiment in his book, The Life You Can Save. Say you were out for a walk, wearing a new pair of shoes, and you saw a girl drowning in a pond. Would you wade in to save her, even if it meant ruining your shoes?

Here’s a three-minute video that teases out the idea:

You can find the video, and much more, on the website of The Life You Can Save, a organization founded by Singer after his book came out. Put simply, The Life You Can Save aims to persuade people to give more of their money away, and to give it to nonprofits that effectively help extremely poor people.

The organization is led by Charlie Bresler. Not long after stepping down as president of the Men’s Wearhouse clothing chain, Bresler read The Life You Can Save and decided to devote himself to promoting Effective Altruism. Bresler, who is 66, told me: “I had no background in serious ethics, but I’ve always been interested in wealth inequality. And I had always thought that, every time I spend a nickel, I could be doing something better with it.” I’ve felt the same way. When I go to dinner at a nice restaurant, I can’t help fretting over how many starving people could be fed if I had given my money away instead.

How to cope with that guilt?

Using a methodology developed by Singer, The Life You Can Save has a calculator that helps supporters decide how much of their income to give to the extreme poor; recommended percentages rise with income. Singer recommends a minimum allocation of 1 percent. Someone earning $50,000, he says, should pledge 1.9 percent (or $954), a person with $100,000 in income should make donations of 4.6 percent ($4628) and an earner of $200,000 should give 6.3 percent ($12,300)–not in total giving, remember, but to organizations with a proven record of effectiveness in helping people in extreme poverty.

That’s the hard part. As Giving USA reported just last week, donations to international causes — which including anti-poverty efforts, disaster relief and human rights — made up just 4 percent of the $358 billion in overall giving by Americans in 2014. That was down slightly from the previous year. About 72 percent of those donations came from individuals; they give closer to home, to religious institutions (by far the biggest category), colleges and schools, and human service nonprofits.

So Singer, Bresler and their colleagues in the Effective Altruism movement have plenty of work to do. The good news is, they’re starting to make headway.

At The Life You Can Save, some 17,856 people had taken the pledge (as of last week), and a few posted their stories here. That’s “good, but it’s not our primary metric,” Bresler says. His focus, he said, is growing the website audience and raising more money for their recommended charities, and that’s going well. Since Bresler became executive director in 2012, web traffic has increased from about 5,000 visitors per month to 30,000 per month. Their giving games have been played on college campuses and elsewhere, and they estimate that they moved about $700,000 to a set of recommended charities in 2014 while spending just under $250,000, most donated by Bresler.

IMG_0312 2Bresler brings an unusual set of experiences to the cause. His formative years were spent opposing the Vietnam War. “Not only was I involved in the antiwar movement, I became a devotee of Orwell and Chomsky,” he told me. “I still subscribe to New Left Review.” He got a master’s in history from Harvard, and taught history for a time, so he understands how mass movements are built. He subsequently trained to become a social and clinical psychologist and ran a clinic in California before George Zimmer, a high school friend and the founder of Men’s Wearhouse, brought him into the company. Bresler ran human resources, stores,  and marketing (“You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.”) and eventually became company president.

Bresler now lives on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, and works with a very small staff that includes Jon Behar, a former hedge fund executive who is chief operating officer and head of philanthropy education at The Life You Can Save. Getting the word out about Effective Altruism will take patience, he admits.

“This movement is still very young and unsophisticated, psychologically and politically,” Bresler says. “We’re trying to get people to look at how little they investigate where they give, and how to think about impact.”

Changing the mindset of donors will be hard. Many charity experts doubt that giving can be swayed by rational argument; they point to studies, notably the Money for Good reports from Hope Consulting, that found that donors spend little or no time researching nonprofit effectiveness. Charity fundraising typically tugs at the heartstrings for a reason.

As a psychologist and a marketer, Bresler has thought a lot about behavior change. He’s hoping to deploy an array of tactics — games, social media, grass-roots organizing and celebrity endorsements — to promote Effective Altruism. “We’re going to have to blend an intellectual approach with an emotional approach,” he says

Happily, he’s got plenty of allies. Groups associated with the cause include the Centre for Effective Altruism, Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, as well as GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators. [I blogged about GiveWell here and Animal Charity Evaluators here.]  Lately, Effective Altruism has generated media attention from, among others, Nicholas Kristof, my ex-FORTUNE colleague Ron Lieber, Vox’s Dylan Matthews and, just last week, Derek Thompson in this excellent Atlantic story. Conferences are planned this summer for London, Melbourne and Google’s Silicon Valley HQ.

Writing this post made me wonder: Why don’t foundations direct more of their giving to those most in need? I’ll look for some data, ask a few questions and report back later this summer.

5 thoughts on “The life you can save: A girl is drowning

  1. Laura Asiala says:

    While I agree with the premise of this post–more money to be directed at the very poor–I would argue that charity still places inordinate power in the hands of the giver. How can we more appropriately direct more capital (working capital). infrastructure, time and skills to better able the very poor to engage on their own behalf, and move from the “pyramid” to the “diamond” as CK Prahalad once described. I appreciate Marc’s points here to hold all of us accountable to move beyond good ideas, good intentions, and even good execution to what actually WORKS.

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  2. Marc, nice piece. We have to be really careful in how we read / use the Hope Consulting ‘finding’ that barely any donors do research into charities’ effectiveness. The fact is that researching a charity’s effectiveness is currently virtually impossible: data on impact (as opposed to financial structure) normally just don’t exist, and if they do, they’re often hard to find (not published anywhere one would think to look), unclear (impact reports normally comprise mainly photos rather than details of experimental design), poor quality (the experimental design matters) and/or unusuable (charities often use their own metrics of success such that donors can’t compare between charities.) I’ve written about these problems of the information & information infrastructure in the charity world, e.g., at http://www.giving-evidence/m&e and http://www.giving-evidence/research-agenda.
    Given these problems, it’s not surprising that *few* donors do research into charities’ effectiveness: it’s surprising that *any* do. In fact, I’d question the donor surveys: those donors who say they’re researching charities’ impact, did you get any detail on what they’re actually claiming to do?

    Our job is to make it easier to research charities’ impact. That’s what TLYCS is for. Richard Thaler is fond of saying that ‘if you wnat to encourage some activity [here, finding good charities], make it easy’.

    That few people do something currently basically impossible doesn’t mean that only few will do it if we (once we have) made it easier. The growth of use of recommendations by TLYCS, GiveWell, GWWC points to that, for example.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      This is a fantastic point, thanks, Caroline. You’re quite right that researching a charity’s effectiveness is all but impossible to do except in a very few cases. So how can we expect people to give “with their heads”?

      It’s exciting to see Effective Altruism getting more attention; perhaps in five or 10 years, a survey on how and why donors give would generate very different results.

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