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Making Way for Sustainable Impact

06/09/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

"If I die BASE jumping," Bryan Swick Turner wrote in a letter addressed to his closest friends, "Please, and I cannot emphasize this enough, do everything you can to help end extreme poverty by 2030 and do your utmost to achieve sustainable development beyond that. Don't waste time being upset about my dying; be upset about the seven million kids that die every year and don't even get a chance to live..."

The Columbia University graduate was only 32-years-old when tragedy struck. Bryan, who died on March 9, 2015 while BASE jumping in Idaho, spent his life supporting anti-poverty efforts. In those 32 years, he achieved great things: leading the largest student movement to end extreme poverty in North America and holding prominent positions at the U.N. and Columbia University Earth Institute. His accomplishments don't stop there.

Bryan has been described as "a one-man army saving lives in the most significant way." Even after his jarring death, he has served as a catalyst for change. His family, friends and the development community have created the Bryan Swick Turner Memorial fund to strengthen the development of a new field - Behavioral Science of Sustainable Development. The fund is set to launch on April 11, 2015 with an initial donation of $20,000. The program will be based at Columbia University, which will sponsor a fellowship, course and summer fieldwork opportunities in honor of Bryan.

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Zahra Liberté Aldünia/A Path Appears blog

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book A Path Appears opens with the story of the big-hearted Rachel Beckwith who, like Bryan, moved us to act. On Rachel's ninth birthday, she asked that instead of birthday presents, guests donate to an organization called charity: water that drills wells in impoverished villages around the world. Her fundraising goal: $300. Rachel didn't meet her goal at her birthday, but after a tragic car accident took the altruistic 9-year-old's life, donations for charity: water came flooding in, reaching up to $1,265,823. By requesting donations instead of birthday gifts, Rachel laid out a foundation for change.

"First, never underestimate the power of inertia," writes Richard H. Thaler in his book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. "Second, that power can be harnessed." Thaler proposes that simple changes to common policies, like making organ donations opt out rather than opt in, can have large effects on the behavior of individuals. Rachel could have asked for a birthday present, but instead she made donations the new status quo.

A follower of Thaler's theories, Bryan believed poverty-alleviating efforts could be much more effective by applying insights from the behavioral sciences - making giving the norm, not the exception. Books such as Thaler's Nudge and A Path Appears show that simple and inexpensive changes often have big effects on the behavior of individuals.

Every day we have the ability to make the same kind and charitable decisions that Rachel and Bryan made to make giving back the norm. And the benefits go beyond dollars raised. As Nicholas and Sheryl wrote, "A path is now appearing to show us how to have a positive impact on the world around us. This is a path of hopefulness, but also a path of fulfilment: typically we start off by trying to empower others and end up empowering ourselves too."

Click here to learn more about Bryan's initiative to end poverty.

This post first appeared on the A Path Appears blog