Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How I save lives (and not by being a doctor)

I recently read somewhere (I can't remember where but I promise it's true) that we should not be modest about what we donate to charity but instead share the information (and our reasons for donating) so that others are shamed inspired to also donate what they can afford.

The "Charitable Giving Index" published today by the NAB (one of Australia's "big four" banks) analysed charitable donations made by credit card, BPAY or EFTPOS. Charities were divided into seven categories, with "Humanitarian Services" charities (such as World Vision, Oxfam and Red Cross) receiving the largest portion of donations (32%), followed by "Community Services and Children/Family", "Other", "Medical Research and Services", "Health and Disability", "Cancer" and "Animals and Environment".

The analysis also looked at the average charity spend per person by their postcode, looking at donations in dollar terms and as percentage of taxable income. The top 10 postcodes (i.e. those with the highest rate of donations as a percentage of taxable income) from my state, Western Australia , donated just 0.13% of their taxable income. This was worse than any other state or territory in Australia. Obviously, there are limitations to the analysis (eg cash donations aren't included nor are donations of time or services) but at face value, we residents of the boom state of WA can do much better.

Reading Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save in 2009 motivated me to increase my personal charitable donations. Singer argues that we have a moral obligation to help solve world poverty. The premise is that most of us would not walk past a drowning person without trying to save them, but we allow thousands of impoverished people to die through our passivity, when we could save lives by donating a proportion of our income. (The Life You Can Save website offers suggestions as to the proportion of income you should donate, based on your income and country of residence.) Now, whenever I consider a purchase, I think to myself, "Could I do better by donating this money to humanitarian causes?" I'm far from perfect as I could definitely do more, I still have many treats, holidays and frivolous purchases, and I come from the privileged position of having a comfortable income, not having student debts and not having any dependents.

Since reading The Life You Can Save I have donated at least 5% of my income to charity, increasing the amount each year. This includes regular monthly donations to five charities (including Oxfam, MSF, Red Cross, Amnesty and a sponsor child) and one-off donations to other appeals, such as for disaster relief or if an acquaintance is fundraising for a particular cause (such as One Girl's Do It In A Dress). Not all of my donations go to humanitarian causes (some are medical charities such as the Cancer Council). I also donate to arts charities and scholarships at my university but do not include these in my 5% target. Sometimes, I may feel that I'm throwing money at charities to alleviate my First World guilt (or my lack of hands-on contributions to charities) but every bit helps and even one life saved or made more comfortable makes it worthwhile.

I'll do a longer post on The Life You Can Save (and its evidence-based suggestions as to which charities you should donate) in the future but for now will leave you with these reasons why I donate to charity:
  1. I can improve more lives indirectly through supporting humanitarian charities than I can directly through working as a doctor;
  2. It is wrong not to; and
  3. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

Take The Life You Can Save pledge along with 14 000 other people.


  1. i agree with the premise "that most of us would not walk past a drowning person without trying to save them, but we allow thousands of impoverished people to die through our passivity, when we could save lives by donating a proportion of our income."

    i donate some money and a lot (lol) of clothing and shoes every year. i tend to donate to services for animals and to organizations that support the arts, as these types of things matter to me so much. i guess i could do more to help regular people in need too.

    years ago i got into an argument with a friend (unlike me, she is a Christian and a "believer" ) about religion and various related topics. i was a bit of an ass saying that i didn't think that her type of people were all that great or all that special since they relied on a REWARD system in order to motivate them to behave properly. meaning: oooooooooh, if i am good and do what this book says, i will go to heaven. that isn't exactly altruistic behavior. but maybe it isn't the end of the world, as "good" behavior benefits all.

    the thought that we should all talk about how much we donate gives me similar feelings. it is kind of sad that we need to spell it all out, but maybe that will shame/motivate others to do more? maybe. i don't know.

    ANYWAY. it is good to help others, whatever the motivation may be behind it!

    omfg. sorry for writing so much here!!!!

    1. Hey Drolly, please write as much as you like!

    2. Thanks for this post, I enjoyed reading it. It is an interesting thought that we should share how much we donate to it does make me feel like maybe I am "flaunting" my wealth or seeking recognition from others for how "good" I am...and as I don't want to do either of those things, I rarely share how much we donate.

      But perhaps this is the appropriate place to state that it is good to see that we are at least matching the suggested portion of income that should be donated.

      On another note, I was given an interesting article recently about the most effective community development tools, you might find it interesting: