How Much Good Can You Do? There's A Calculator For That

Dec 18, 2012
Originally published on December 20, 2012 2:16 pm

This time of year, many are thinking about giving to one charity or another and wondering just how much good their donations will do.

Oxford University ethics professor Toby Ord talks with All Things Considered today about his "Giving What We Can" campaign, which encourages members to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, and the online calculators he's come up with that aim to show how steady giving can produce some very positive results.

For instance, Ord's calculator estimates that if a 55-year-old earning $50,000 annually gave 10 percent of that income to charity each year until age 65:

20 "healthy lives" would be created (that's somewhat akin to saving lives, but more about making lives better and less subject to such threats as chronic or deadly diseases).

There's also a calculator that aims to show just how rich you may be. An American family of four with an annual household income of $100,000, for example, ranks among the richest 3.4 percent of the world's population, according to Ord's research.

"I sat down about seven years ago," Ord told NPR's Melissa Block, "and tried to work out how much I personally could help people through my career." He estimated he could donate about 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) over his life and not have to change his standard of living. And that, he calculated, could help save about 60,000 lives if it went to charities doing good work in some of the world's poorest nations and neediest regions.

As for which charities to direct money to, Ord's website has guidance about that as well. It says it focuses on "the number of lives they save," and not as much as other groups that evaluate effectiveness do on charities' administrative or fundraising costs.

There's much more from his conversation with Melissa on today's broadcast. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-aired version of the conversation to the top of this post.

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At year's end, as many of us think about charitable giving, a man named Toby Ord would encourage us to give quite a bit more, at least 10 percent of our income to help people living in poverty in the developing world. Toby Ord teaches ethics at Oxford and a few years ago, he started the organization Giving What We Can.

Now, it counts 269 members who have taken a pledge to give away at least 10 percent of their earnings for the rest of their lives. The total would be more than $101 million. Toby Ord joins me now from Oxford to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

TOBY ORD: Oh, thanks for having me.

BLOCK: How'd the idea come about in the first place?

ORD: Well, I sat down about seven years ago, and tried to work out how much I personally could help people through my career. I worked out that I could earn about one and a half million pounds over my career and could donate about a million pounds of this and still maintain the quality of life I had while I was a grad student, when I was thinking of this.

So I tried to work out what the most effective charities were to see how much I could do with that money. And I found that over my life, I could save about 60,000 years of life if donated to the most effective charities in developing countries.

BLOCK: That 60,000 years of life calculation, just explain what that means.

ORD: There's a truism in public health that you can't really save a life. The more precise way to think about it is how many years of life you save or, ideally, how many quality adjusted life years when you take into account the effects of disease and disability as well. So what I found that I'd be able to do over my life is to provide about 60,000 quality adjusted life years or 60,000 years of healthy life.

BLOCK: You mentioned when you were thinking about charities that you wanted to focus on efficiency or effectiveness. And your website chooses charities that it feels - it evaluates charities that it feels will do the most good. How do you calculate that? How do you figure that out?

ORD: It turns out there's quite a lot of good academic evidence on this by the World Health Organization and a group in America called The Disease Control Priorities Project. And they look at many different health interventions in developing countries and rate them from the most effective to the least effective. And quite amazingly, they find that the most effective are about 100 times more effective than the middle.

So it turns out to be incredibly important as to where you give.

BLOCK: You recommend especially giving to three health charities that fight malaria and diseases in the tropical world caused by worms. Why health charities in particular?

ORD: We're focused on health because health has the best evidence for a very high impact. One of the charities, Against Malaria Foundation, distributes mosquito nets and for about $5, they can distribute a net and that's all inclusive of administration and everything. And it turns out, overall, they save a life for every $2,300 that they receive. We also look at fighting intestinal worms in school children.

It turns out that if you provide some very cheap drugs, which cost about 50 cents per child per year, you can massively increase school attendance and this overall leads to about a 20 percent increase in adult wages for the people who are treated.

BLOCK: What about the argument, Mr. Ord, that charity begins at home? I mean, why should I not be just as concerned with taking care of the homeless person I might see on my way to the metro or buying a meal for a starving family in West Virginia or Mississippi?

ORD: It turns out that even though the people in these places might have very difficult lives, it's just much harder to help them. It turns out that you can often turn someone's life around in a poor country for maybe $100 or less, whereas it's just impossible to achieve those kinds of results in richer countries. So if we think that people are created equally, then we can just do more to help them if we fund things in developing countries.

BLOCK: Toby Ord is founder of the organization Giving What We Can, which encourages people to donate at least 10 percent of their income to fight global poverty. Toby Ord, thanks so much.

ORD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.