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The Life You Can Save: A Perspective on Ethical and Effective Charitable Giving

By Steve Hind

By Steve Hind

On Tuesday February 16 The Social Enterprise Club and Retail and Luxury Goods Club co-hosted a talk by Charlie Bresler, who is currently the Executive Director of The Life You Can Save and previously served as President of Men’s Warehouse. Bresler spoke about his remarkable career journey, from anti-war activist, to psychologist, to retail executive and now to leader of a major non-profit. The consistent theme was about maximizing career impact, which Bresler does today by spreading, through The Life You Can Save, philosopher Peter Singer’s message that deaths from extreme poverty are preventable through thoughtful, targeted philanthropy.

Given a chance, we would save a life – and that chance exists

Imagine, posits a video on The Life You Can Save’s website, that you walk past a pond where a six-year-old girl is drowning. Would you wade in to save her, even if it meant ruining your new shoes? The answer, of course, is yes.

But what if, they ask, the girl was in Africa? What if instead of drowning in a pond, she was dying because her parents could afford a simple treatment for diarrhea or malaria? And what if you could contribute to saving her for a small amount of money?HUECU Spring Home Buying Ad-1 (2)

Bresler and Singer’s organization argue that you can. There is a huge amount of preventable suffering in the world, and many feel their gift would only be a drop in the bucket. But this isn’t the issue, he argued, What if the ‘drop in the bucket’ was your daughter? By giving to highly effective, proven charities that tackle extreme poverty, like The Against Malaria Foundation and Give Directly, donors can meaningfully, quickly, and directly impact the lives of people, usually children, born into extreme poverty.

‘Bottomless’ problems and today’s ‘thoughtless’ philanthropy

Often, Bresler said, it seems like acting on problems of extreme poverty is pointless because they are simply too huge and too difficult to solve. However, he pointed out that the issue isn’t the cost of solving these problems but rather the way we inefficiently allocate charitable giving today.

According to The Life You Can Save, it would cost $125bn each year to cut global poverty in half. That is a big number, but not when compared to annual charitable giving in the US alone. Each year US households give approximately $240bn to charity. Foundations and corporations give another $120bn. Of donations by households, The Life You Can Save estimates that just 3% of all dollars are given on the basis of the donor doing research into the relative performance of charities in achieving a predefined set of goals.

In other words, it’s not that we’re not generous enough to solve difficult problems that cause avoidable deaths from extreme poverty – it’s that we don’t think carefully enough about how we give to charity.

Recognizing the imperative to help

Bresler was quick to emphasize that recognizing the imperative to help doesn’t necessitate living a life of absolute sacrifice. He recounted a recent conversation with his wife about whether to repaint their house. How, she asked, could they spent $6,000 repainting the house when that money could be given to the Against Malaria Foundation to distribute anti-malarial bed nets (by some estimates, a donation of that size would likely save at least two lives from malaria).

Bresler’s answer: you can’t justify it. The answer, he said, is to admit you’re not perfect and work towards doing better, without beating yourself up for not being there already. If we look at the moral imperative to help others and start rationalizing why it doesn’t apply, he said, we have no chance of improving. The goal is to move toward our ‘personal best’.

Bresler advises executives and high net worth individuals on their imperative to give by asking this: Would you donate to a given cause if you knew with a high degree of confidence that it would save lives? If their answer is yes, he’ll lead them through the available research about the efficacy of available interventions. At the end of the day, if people simply don’t want to give, at least they admit as much.

So, should we all be aid workers in Africa?

Photo_Charlie_Bresler_crop

Charlie Bresler

None of Bresler’s message is anti-business. To the contrary, this is a man who built his career selling menswear. For-profit businesses, he says, do amazing things for the world and solve structural problems in development.

Indeed, The Life You Can Save emphasizes that ‘earning to give’ – working in lucrative for-profit fields in order to donate substantially to combat extreme poverty – is often a good career choice, especially for people like MBAs who have high earning potential.


This links back to Bresler’s concept of ‘personal best.’ Admitting that we have the power to do amazing things to help people in extreme poverty need not be the catalyst to upend our lives. But it should be the catalyst to start helping, committing to do a little better each year.

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Steve Hind (HBS ’16) is a Harbus contributor and previously served as CEO and Editor in Chief. He is the Effective Altruism Chair of the Social Enterprise Club. He was previously a consultant at BCG.

March 8, 2016
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