Why We Should Do Good by Giving Better

04/16/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

There's a powerful new conversation taking place about how each of us can choose to maximize the amount of good that we do. Many of us are fortunate to count ourselves among those who have enough resources to feed and clothe our families, and to buy ourselves the basic necessities and comforts that make for a meaningful and happy life. Being well off, by global standards, presents each of us with a remarkable opportunity to do tremendous good for some of the world's most vulnerable people--the men, women, and children who happen to be born into less fortunate circumstances in the developing world.

About 18,000 children under the age of five die each day from preventable illnesses that are linked to poverty. That's a mind-boggling 750 children an hour--or nearly 13 children a minute. Despite the fact that these "diseases of poverty" have been more or less eliminated in the developed world in light of advances in nutrition, sanitation, and healthcare, billions of people continue to die throughout the world--the direct result of the effects of poverty.

No one would deny that global poverty is a complicated problem, but its causes can be studied and solved. And the good news is there's excellent work being done by highly effective anti-poverty charities to alleviate the suffering of individuals who would be otherwise forced to live and die in grueling poverty.

But despite the good work that's being done, many people still question why they should support global anti-poverty efforts.

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued that this approach to evidence-backed giving was fundamentally justified, but raised several reasons why he remained skeptical of the movement that is commonly known as effective altruism.

Kristof's baseline assumption is that giving substantial portions of our earnings to effective anti-poverty charities could have a diminishing effect upon the lives of those who give.

"I want to take my wife to dinner without guilt; I want to be able to watch a movie without worrying that I should instead be buying a bed net," he writes. "There is more to life than self-mortification, and obsessive cost-benefit calculus, it seems to me, subtracts from the zest of life."

But from my own experience, I know that choosing to allocate a portion of one's earnings for evidence-backed charities rarely translates into feelings of guilt or self-mortification. Since earning my first paycheck nearly five years ago, I've donated a percentage of my teaching and student stipend earnings to charities that provide cost-effective and often life-saving services to those living in the developing world. The majority of those who benefit from these medical services are people who live on less than $1.25 a day--the World Bank's official benchmark for measuring extreme poverty. For those living in extreme poverty--an astonishing one billion people each year--this means that these men, women, and children must find ways of feeding, clothing, and housing themselves on a total of roughly $450 each year.

I think it's possible to recognize the dismaying disparity between a $450 annual income and my own salary--this year, around $27,000--without seeing the situation as too complicated to solve, or lambasting myself for not doing more to help. According to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, there are fewer people living in extreme poverty today than there were just a few decades ago.

Global poverty can be solved. Rather than feeling guilty about not doing more, I feel inspired by the chance to make lasting contributions to the personal wellbeing of some of the world's neediest people.

Aid that is specifically earmarked for global poverty relief still makes Americans from both ends of the political spectrum uncomfortable and defensive. We tend to pit effective international poverty relief against other charitable causes--the arts, higher education, religious institutions, or even programs that combat poverty in our own neighborhoods--in order to come up with reasons why we shouldn't have to donate to help those living far away from home.

I've often felt puzzled why Americans see global aid interventions as mutually exclusive from other kinds of charitable contributions. No one argues that saving for our own retirement should come at the cost of donating to our churches, mosques, and synagogues. And many of us donate to both our alma maters and find ways to support our local arts scene--without ever contemplating the possibility that our support for one should eclipse our support for the other. So why shouldn't we add global anti-poverty work to the list of causes that we could support, too?

Since graduating from college, I've donated thousands of dollars to poverty relief charities, and I've given somewhat smaller sums to my sister and brother-in-law's ministry work, which provides counseling and support to children--most of whom are undocumented--living in the underprivileged Westside neighborhoods of Santa Barbara. I've also found ways of giving back to the educational institutions that enriched my life--and gave me a lot of financial aid and scholarship money during my student years! For me, I never found that extending charity overseas means that we need to give up our efforts to be charitable at home.

My hope is that in the very near future, giving to effective anti-poverty charities will be just as culturally acceptable as other forms of charitable giving.

In his final objection to the to the idea of doing good by giving effectively, Kristof writes that he has qualms about the idea of starting a high-paying career with the sole intention of making a lot of money to give away to charity. Kristof is writing in response to the career choice made by Matt Wage, a recent Princeton graduate who chose to take a finance job with the intention of giving away half of his earnings.

And Kristof is right to argue that Wage's specific career plan wouldn't work for everyone. As someone who still has nightmares about my high school math tests, I know that a high-paying, numbers-oriented job was never in the cards for me. But I think that individuals like Matt Wage offer a challenge to all of us--not just those of us at the beginning of our careers or who are in positions to take high-powered jobs. Wage found a creative solution to achieving his goal of giving substantially, while still doing a job that he finds inherently enjoyable.

Or consider the example of my colleague Charlie Bresler, who was president of a major retail company when he decided to leave the corporate world. At an age when most people consider retiring, Bresler instead chose to allocate a portion of his own personal assets to fund The Life You Can Save, a meta non-profit that seeks opportunities to move funds to sixteen highly effective anti-poverty charities. This year, Bresler finished his second year as the unpaid executive director of The Life You Can Save. For the past year, I've had the pleasure of donating my time as a pro bono editor for The Life You Can's outreach initiatives. We may not all have substantial salaries, but each of us can find creative ways to give.

I think that if we're open to being challenged and eager to contribute, each of us will find that we can make a measurable difference by donating either money or time to bettering the lives of those who live with so much less than ourselves.