How We Can All Give Away A Million

Now here’s an interesting idea as we go into giving season – an Oxford University philosopher has pledged to give £1 million to charity over his lifetime and wants you to do the same. Not really headline news in a world of billion-dollar mega-gifts you might think, but there are two interesting things about Dr Toby Ord: he isn’t rich and he’s only 30.

Like his fellow philosopher Peter Singer, author of The Life You Can Save, Dr Ord reasons that the money he might spend on a fancier car or bigger house would be better spent saving thousands of lives (giving to the most cost-effective charities is an important part of the formula, he cautions).

The interesting twist is that Dr Ord has married Singer’s ethics to the behavioural economics of Richard Thaler, author of the bestseller Nudge. One of Thaler’s most successful experiments in social psychology was a scheme to tackle an analogous problem, our reluctance to save. Participants in one of  Thaler’s experiments weren’t asked to start saving more straight away; instead they pre-committed a growing part of any future pay increases they received to their retirement savings plan. This ‘Save MoreTomorrow’ scheme worked better at increasing personal saving than other exhortations to save because it recognised that people find it harder to put aside money they have already got than to save money they might have in the future. Perhaps the same will be true of giving.

Dr Ord is already giving away 10% of his modest salary and says he will donate everything he earns above £20,000 ($33,000) a year for the rest of his career. This is a pretty high bar in terms of asceticism, but the principle is an important one – ethically and economically. Will Dr Ord stick to his pledge? Well, he can count on some crucial support: his wife was the first member of the Giving What We Can campaign that he set up to promote the idea.