This post is 2,000 words long, so here’s a brief summary:
- Every year I give 10 percent of my gross business income to organisations that I believe promote equality and justice.
- The Jewish word for financial giving is tzedakah—not ‘charity’, but ‘justice’.
- Financial giving isn’t virtuous do-gooding; it’s an acknowledgement of what I owe for benefiting from often invisible inequalities.
- For every hour I work, even modest financial giving could more than double the daily earnings of two people living below the extreme poverty line.
- By committing to giving 10 percent of my income, tzedakah is not only part of what I earn—but part of why I earn.
Giving what we can
A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I write about financial giving. Although I appreciated her suggestion, I decided that sharing the reasons why I give money to charities and other organisations might really piss people off. No one likes a preacher.
Since then, I’ve been taken aback by astonishing demonstrations of public generosity, as ordinary citizens seek to challenge injustice with their money:
Covid-19 seems to have stirred a spirit of social consciousness. I might still piss people off, but I’ve changed my mind on writing about financial giving.
I’m far from being an expert—and I’m sure that many of you are way ahead of me in both thought and action—but this article is why and how I structure my financial giving to promote equality and justice.
I’ve written before about the distinctions between charity and solidarity, so I won’t repeat myself but, quickly, here’s why I don’t like to call financial giving ‘charity’.
‘Charity’ includes giving that does little or nothing to promote equality and justice.
Giving money to a nominally charitable institution like a church so that they can fix their damaged roof is very generous, but I’m not convinced it does much to help those who need support most.
Sometimes registered charities (sometimes even churches) are worthy recipients of cash, but sometimes the world would be better off if we granted that money to community groups, online movements, small businesses, entrepreneurs or simply people we believe in.
The word charity also excludes the possibility that we actually owe this money to others.
Giving as repayment on debt
Charity, caritas, is one of the seven virtues of Christianity, but Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas had in mind a definition closer to universal love than to financial largesse.
Unfortunately, the sense of virtue has stuck to charity’s modern definition. But the story of slave trader Edward Colston, whose statue was recently torn down by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol, reminds us that charitable giving is far from a guarantee of ethical good standing.
In his career as a dealer in the lives of humanity, Colston was a member of the Royal African Company and, over the course of twelve bloody years, played his part in trading 84,000 African men, women and children. It’s estimated that 19,000 of these people died on their journey to the Americas.
Colston made a lot of money from this business, which he later gave away to found various charitable institutions in Bristol. But Colston’s financial giving had nothing to do with virtue or universal love; it was a debt that he owed—and one he could never fully repay.
So it seems to me quite right that Colston’s statue was torn down: debtors aren’t usually celebrated in bronze. (Otherwise, where are the millions of plinths dedicated to payday loan victims and university students?)
I’m optimistic that I don’t have quite as much blood on my hands as Colston, but living as I do in a highly developed country, I still owe some sort of debt for my position.
My quality of life is founded on almost invisible inequalities and injustices that existed long before I was born.
The seductive invisibility of these inequalities makes me vulnerable to self-flattery, giving myself far too much credit for my good fortune. I’m not alone: this is a well-studied psychological phenomenon called the attribution bias.
To me, it felt like I worked hard to do well at university. It felt like opportunities came my way only after years of hard work for little or no reward. It feels like I work hard for the money I now earn.
The most I’ll concede is that there has been an element of luck.
But it’s not luck: it’s inequality and injustice.
The truth is that other people in my local neighbourhood, my country or elsewhere in the world simply didn’t, don’t and never will have the same opportunity to be rewarded so richly for their hard work.
Side story: cacao farmers in Cameroon
In my work for the Center for International Forestry Research, I’m lucky enough to speak to people all over the world about their lives.
I’m currently working on a piece about ecology and socio-economics in forest villages in Cameroon. One of the indicators that the researchers collected is called the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale.
Despite great success growing cacao as a cash crop for international markets, only 21 percent of households in the Cameroonian village of Bokito were considered food secure. In the poorer village of Talba, that figure dropped to 12 percent.
Four families out of five in these villages said yes to questions like: Did you or any household members go to sleep at night hungry because there was not enough food?
Despite working long hours on cacao plantations, these families are unable to feed their children, with all the knock-on effects that has on health, education and life opportunities.
All of a sudden, it doesn’t feel like I worked particularly hard.
30 percent of all people in Cameroon live in extreme poverty. If they lived in the United States, that means they’d be surviving on less than $1.90 per day.
Coincidentally, that’s about how much I’d spend on a quality bar of the chocolate the people of Bokito and Talba help grow. Something to think about the next time I bite into a bar of Green & Blacks.
Here’s something else: in Judaism, charitable giving is called tzedakah, a word that better translates as ‘justice’. I really like that translation. Financial giving is not virtuous charity, it’s an attempt to balance the books of justice.
Giving as politics
When someone sets up a charity, community project or social enterprise, they’re saying: I believe the world can be a better place in this specific, measurable way.
The enterprise doesn’t work unless they bring people along with them: the founders must become politicians for their vision. Donors and volunteers are their citizenry, who vote with their money or their time.
Together, these third sector politicians and citizens can change the world. Last month, a small charity that didn’t exist three years ago won a high court challenge to a vile government policy that prevented working migrants from accessing welfare support during Covid-19.
I’m not saying that governments can’t do much more to make the world a fairer place. Economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a strong case that politicians could do a lot more to fight inequality by forcing multinational companies to pay tax at a global minimum rate, for example.
But when governments fail us or when we disagree with the general drift of our politicians, it’s amazing that enterprising citizens stand up and say: no, we believe the world should be more like this.
And we, operating independently of our politicians and the state, can give money and say: yes, we’re behind you.
As we’ve seen so strongly over the past few months, we can’t rely entirely on the state to balance the books of justice. We all give tzedakah. The only remaining question is how and how much.
In this article I’m only talking about financial giving, but there are of course many other ways that we all try to promote equality and justice.
- Voluntary service, including advocacy
- Political action
- Paid work
- Work in kind
- Raising and educating the next generation
Our giving in these different areas naturally fluctuates over our lifespan. For many, many years, I didn’t do much financial giving. I’m not beating myself up about that fact.
With that said, here is what I do now, along with the resources that inspired me.
Taking the pledge
In July 2017, I took the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 1 percent of my earnings that year to effective charitable organisations. I promptly forgot all about this pledge and have, instead, donated 10 percent of my earnings every year since.
The 1 percent pledge, it turned out, was a classic ‘foot in the door’ sales tactic. Once I’d made the decision that I was the sort of person who would give in a structured way every year, 1 percent felt insignificant.
I don’t have any dependents, I live in a country with a more or less functioning welfare system that includes free healthcare, and I come from a home-owning family. All this means that I feel more comfortable committing to 10 percent.
For clarity: that means 10 percent of my business income before deductions:
- Before tax
- Before National Insurance
- Before business expenses
- Before living expenses
This detail is important to me. When I formalised my financial giving in 2017, I wasn’t earning a huge amount of money and calculating from my business profit would have meant years of zero contributions.
Social problems like inequality and injustice get exponentially worse and harder to fix as time move on. I wanted to start giving immediately and, more importantly, get into good giving habits on the off-chance that I do one day start earning millions.
Working from gross income is also a lot less complicated to administer.
I’m freelance so I have a separate bank account for my business income. At the end of the financial year, I siphon 10 percent of the balance into another bank account dedicated exclusively to financial giving.
This creates a fund from which I give over the course of the next financial year. If there’s anything left in the account from the year before, I usually grant that money out after doing my tax return—or it rolls forward to the next year.
What difference could I make?
Median income in the UK is £18,630. I fall some way below that, but globally I’m in the top 11 percent of all earners. Even after giving away 10 percent of my income, I’m still in the global top 12 percent.
Yep: we live in a very unequal world.
Apologies for the excessive use of italics, but I find it hard to get my head around the following fact:
My 10 percent giving is enough that, for every hour I work, I could more than double the daily earnings of two people living below the extreme poverty line—perhaps two of those cacao farmers I’m writing about.
That shows what could be done with whatever sum a citizen in a wealthy country can afford to give.
Working for justice
By committing to structured giving, I can almost always say yes when friends ask me to donate to social causes that they believe in.
If I’m paid £300 for a writing job, then I already know that £30 will go toward promoting equality and justice.
This is a huge relief: no more awkward moments, worried I can’t spare another twenty quid. I know I can afford to give because it’s baked into every penny I earn.
Financial giving is part of what I earn—but it’s also part of why I earn.
As a writer, working in the highly theoretical field of abstract thought can make me feel disconnected from the injustice of daily life for farmers on cacao plantations in Cameroon.
Without overplaying my modest contribution, my work feels more meaningful now I know that a sliver of justice is served every time I sit down to write.
My contribution, however modest, only began when I stumbled across the Giving What We Can pledge in July 2017.
Much of what I’ve written here has been said more eloquently and with more academic rigour by the philosopher Peter Singer, one of the foremost thinkers on financial giving.
Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save, helped create the Effective Altruism movement behind the Giving What We Can pledge. In a new edition for 2019, The Life You Can Save is available as a free audiobook download.
Finally, thanks to TD and DRL for conversations that inspired this piece!