how generous could you be?

Posted on December 20th, 2010

I found this read really very inspiring – about a Melbourne-born guy who earns $47,000 a year, one-third of which he gives away to charity. He’s also set up a movement Giving What We Can encouraging people to give 10 per cent of their earnings away. Could you do this? Could you take the plunge and just….give? It’s a good time of year to think about this.


It’s got me thinking about how tightly I hold on to “my” stuff. I get scared things will run out. I accumulate like a squirrel, mostly due to my upbringing of scarcity. Although also because I get sucked into the messages of our culture – to acquire and accumulate. But it’s dumb. I don’t need or want any of it. Eventually it shits me and I do a massive give away. One’s brewing at the moment….

It’s all or nothing, generosity. Once you’re in the space of giving, it’s effortless. But if you hold on, it’s hard to give 20 cents to a busker. We’re encouraged to grip. It takes a certain firm, conscious elan to slide into generous flow. But once you’re in it, EVERYTHING feels breezier. I think you just have to start. By giving away your lunch. Or handing out stuff you were going to sell on ebay to friends instead. It feels good. So on you go.

The gist of Toby’s story: he’s a a 31-year-old Oxford University academic who has in the past year given more than £10,000, to charities. He also gave away £15,000 of savings, as the start of his pledge to give away £1m over his lifetime. He’s also 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.

Toby Ord

The BBC Online quoted a few interesting bits from Toby:

“When I was earning £14,000 as a student, I found I was in the richest 4% in the world, even adjusting for how much further money goes in developing countries.

“Giving away 10% of that, I found that I would still be in the top 5%. So while it can seem impossible to live on less, if your employer was to suddenly pay you less, you would get by somehow.”

What I find interesting is how doing good like this prioritises everything else in the right direction. When you cast off stuff, it leaves you more time and space with the content that matters.

“When it began, I would be down in the supermarket agonising about whether to buy a more expensive cereal or not but I realise that’s a road to a nervous breakdown and that it was much more sensible to work out at the start what you can live on [give away the rest in a lump sum] and then after a year readjust – can I live on less, am I pushing it too hard – instead of perpetually agonising about it.”

And his thoughts on how to give:

He uses the methodology of the World Health Organisation to calculate how much a sum of money can “buy” in terms of extending the lives of those in need. Ord says medical interventions in developing countries can be 10,000 times more cost-effective than those in the UK. And he carefully researches which charities he thinks make the most difference.

The £10,000 he gave away last year he says equates to 4,000 extra years of life at full health for people in those countries where those charities do their work.

He’s aware of the arguments people have against giving to charities in the developing world, such as corruption and overpopulation, and he sets out to address them on a section of his website.

Who do you give to? What formula do you use?

Me, I sponsor an Aussie kid through school with A Start In Life. I also give to OzHarvest and Streetsmart, both charities that help homeless people in my local area.

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  • Mia

    Wow! Amazing. I know people who earn a lot more than him, but who wouldn’t give a cent of it.

    I have always tried to support charities I believe in, as soon as I turned 18 I started to give money to Greenpeace. I want to volunteer on the Rainbow Warrior one day, which I am told that I could possibly do, as a diver. I just need more experience!

    I find the problem with charities is that there are SO MANY. Each time I walk through the shopping centre I am bombarded by images of starving African orphans, babies dying of AIDS, bears chained up and in pain… I dont know how to deal with it. I feel like I am too sensitive to deal with it, it causes me pain just to walk by but if I said yes to everyone who I felt deserved it, I could easily spend my salary ten times over. What to do? Which one do you say yes to? For someone who has in the past literally made herself sick by giving too much (hello auto-immune disease) it is hard to know when to shut off.

    I have read a lot lately about minimalism, there are some amazing blogs out there (like Zen Habits and Mnmlist, Leo Babuatu is incredible!) which describe plainly how little we need to not only survive, but flourish. As a former consumaholic, this appeals to me. I often fantasize about being a Buddhist monk owning nothing but two robes, and while this is an extreme example, it flies in the face of the Western cultural ideal that says, “Have more = be happier.” Obviously humans are not build like that, because people in Western cultures are among the least happy in the world. Whereas families in Mexico and India, even in the most abject poverty, seem so much happier. I have watched in documentaries how on a happiness scale, they often rate higher than people in Western cultures even though they have nothing! Probably because if you dont have it, and have never had it, then its hard to worry about it. Also, having one’s family and loved ones around all the time is usually a sure-fire route to happiness.

    In the last year I have given away most of my clothing (and other items) to charity and now own a mere handful of things compared to what I used to. I simply dont need as much shit as I thought I did. Plus, it makes me happy to give back. The happiest time in my life, I was a nomad living out of a suitcase as I travelled the American desert in a bus. The less I own, the happier I am – and the more time I have to contemplate ways I could do more.


  • Sharni

    don’t forget you are also supporting the Afghan Women’s writing project :-)
    I couldn’t really give a damn about stuff, I like this guy’s philosophy!


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  • Mia

    In addition… did anyone catch the comments on the bottom of the BBC article linked here? I was shocked to find most of them were negative. Along the lines of “It’s all well and good for Toby but I could never do that because…” I was a little stunned. It seems most people aren’t ready to change, or to admit that they could/ that they need to. I find that a little sad.


    picardie.girl Reply:

    It astonishes me that people would look at a regular person who donates so much and say, “it’s all well and good for him, but I couldn’t…”. That is an argument usually reserved for celebrities, who we perceive as living in such luxury — “yeah, yeah, but they can afford it” — even if they donate huge percentages of their earnings. One of the most giving people I know is also the poorest — I think it is those who have been/are in need that feel most keenly how much others need help, and ironically are more likely to be generous, even when they are not necessarily in a position to give anything.
    Percentage-wise, many people could give a great deal more. I certainly could.


  • Andrew

    I find Kiva works well – small loans to people trying to get their busines going in third world countries,


  • Louise

    I wish more people would get on this!

    I recommend to everyone I know ‘The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty,’ by Peter Singer, it’s amazing stuff. And for most people, he only even suggests giving 1% of your salary – we wouldn’t even notice the difference, but it can save lives.

    The book also has some excellent suggestions for which charities to donate to – Fred Hollows and Hamlin Fistula being two hugely worthy ones.


  • sheree

    Toby reminds me of Christopher McCandless from ‘Into the World’ donating ALL of his savings to Oxfam, then living a life as a vagabond. His ideals and courage inspire me. My inspiration!

    Listen to Eddie Veder ‘Society’.

    “You think you have to want
    more than you need
    until you have it all you won’t be free

    society, you’re a crazy breed
    I hope you’re not lonely without me”.


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  • Jason

    Give away to charities by all means but don’t EVER mention it. Don’t go telling the whole god damn world on a blog or even to a few people at a bbq. It’s really bad taste.


    James Reply:

    I agree with this sentiment but i’m not sure whether it’s ‘bad taste’. It certainly seems to be motivated by a need for recognition or attention which is just ego based. There’s no right or wrong in that, it’s just about becoming aware of it.

    Real change in terms of humility certainly comes with giving without anyone else knowing.


    Jason Reply:

    Hi James,

    Well said. You’re bang on.


    picardie.girl Reply:

    I guess it depends what you say and how you say it. If no-one ever spoke about marvellous programs like Kiva, no-one would ever know about them! So, I think it’s great to say, hey, I just found out about this, and I think it’s a cool idea, but very bad taste to brag about how much you donate or how many charities you’ve supported, etc.


    Mia Reply:

    I guess it depends what your motivation is. I see no problem with what Toby did. They actually ask him in the article whether it would not be better to do it quietly. “Not if you want to encourage others to do the same” I believe the reply was.

    “It’s not that amazing. I’m not that impressed by this, but I’m glad that people feel it’s a good story. The median income is £18,000 so I’m not living off anything less than the median person in the UK.” Seems to indicate this was more about promoting his organization than making a spectacle of himself. In my opinion, anyway.


  • picardie.girl

    I give to Kiva, which is a wonderful organisation that organises microloans. It’s a great way of giving people a leg up without a hand-out. I give only a small amount, they get to keep their dignity and feel empowered as they pay the loan back over time, and then when it is paid back, I get to pass it on to someone else — so my original donation of $25 gets recycled again and again! And I get to choose whoever/whatever cause I think is most deserving or that particularly aligns with my values.
    I also give in bits and bobs throughout the year, but I object very strongly to people waiting to accost you in the shopping centre or on the street — I’ll donate coins, buy badges or daffodils, organise a Biggest Morning Tea, but don’t you put a guilt trip on me by asking for a direct debit agreement!


  • katiecrackernuts

    I don’t hand over nearly anything like 10 per cent of my income to charity but would say I am generous with my time. I volunteer, and get enormous satisfaction from it. Followers of my blog would have read my harping on about Girl Guides and my role as a leader being my hands on way of saving the world. It’s no hype. I can give to wonderful chairties and do from time to time but being a part of the action, a part of the change has its own rewards. It’s unpaid work and I do hours upon hours of it each week, like most youth leaders do – a big high five in particular to Scout and Girl Guide leaders.
    Maybe a little generosity with your time rather than your cash would be a good way to deliver.


  • Charlie

    I feel that if you can’t be generous with money, be generous with your time, your heart, your ears, your smile, your laugh. Give back to the world more than whatit has given you. x


    Penny Reply:

    So true – the most important and meaningful gift anyone can give another person is their time.


  • Laura

    Thanks for sharing Sarah, I found it very inspiring. xx


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  • reality chick

    I am pretty ad-hoc but always try and support friends who are fund-raising – like Can Too – and I did DryJuly this year (didn’t raise an awful lot but plan to do it every year as it’s something I can do to help a bit). My mum’s thing for years has been is to make Christmas her annual ‘giving’ time, and she puts cheques in envelopes for a range of charities.
    As a journo I also get given a lot of stuff for review and often cart boxes down to Vinnies of books and other things. I know what you mean about the easiness of giving once you start – I went on a massive e-bay drive recently to try and make some extra cash but ended up saying stuff it, and just gave it all away instead. I was poorer but happier :)

    Hope you have a merry xmas Sarah and all the best for 2011 – love reading your blog, even though I don’t pop in as often as I should! X


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