Toby Ord: Giving What He Can and Encouraging You to Do the Same

Greggory Moore | Best of Best

Generosity is the right instinct, but not all giving is equally effective. Meet one man who's dedicated his life—including a significant portion of his modest income—to effectively helping both those in need and those who want to pass along the most philanthropic bang for their buck.

The more you have, the more you have to give. Read both "have"s the same, and the statement is a simple truism. But read the second as need to, and it's a moral imperative.

The latter take is Toby Ord all over. During the first year of his professorial career he gave away half his modest annual salary and founded Giving What We Can, whose members have donated $37 million to the world's most effective charities in the organization's half-dozen years of existence. But that's just for a start.

Nothing in Ord's upbringing suggested he would grow up to be a moral philosopher with an acute feeling for the plight of the poor. Poverty did not hit close to home as a child, and his first college degree was in computer science. Even when he took an increasing interest in philosophy, his first brush with Peter Singer, the applied ethicist whose life and work would profoundly inspire Ord, wasn't immediately life-changing.

But puzzling over fundamental disagreements in politics over how best to help others sharpened his focus on the moral issues in play, which shortly led him to the question of extreme poverty, a matter he felt transcended national and political concerns. After emigrating from Australia to England to study philosophy at Oxford University, he revisited Singer's work, which put Ord firmly on the road to his future.

"I found [Singer's] case for giving much of our income to help others very compelling," Ord recalls. "And his own commitments to donate a lot of his money showed me that he was putting his money where his mouth was. I reflected on what I could achieve if did something similar and saw that the potential to help people was so large that it was clearly the right thing to do."

Having completed his postgraduate work in philosophy, in 2009 Ord became a junior fellow at Oxford and made a personal pledge to donate no less than 10% of his future income—as in, for the rest of his life—to charity. Putting his own money where his own mouth was, he donated a whopping 47% of the £25,294 he earned in 2009.

Discovering that many of his friends and colleagues were interested in making a similar pledge, in November 2009 Ord and fellow Oxford prof Will MacAskill founded Giving What We Can, a volunteer-run "giving society" of individuals making pledges similar to Ord's. By the end of 2010, now composed of 64 members who had pledged donations that would amount to about $21 million over their lifetimes, Giving What We Can had started "build[ing] a community of people united in their commitment to donate at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities in the world" with the hopes of "see[ing] an end to extreme poverty in this lifetime."

By the middle of 2012 Giving What We Can was big enough to need a full-time staff, and in October 2013 the Giving What We Can Trust was launched, which enabled both members and non-members in the United Kingdom to easily donate to the organization's recommended charities and have 100% of their money make its way to its intended destination.

Determining which charities are the most effective and helping members channel their donation in this direction is part of Giving What We Can's modus operandi. As Ord notes in his 2012 essay "The moral imperative towards cost-effectiveness,"

If we can save one thousand lives with one intervention and ten thousand with another at an equal price, then merely moving our funding from the first to the second saves nine thousand lives. Thus merely moving funding from one intervention to a more cost-effective one can produce almost as much benefit as adding an equal amount of additional funding. This is unintuitive since it isn’t the case when one option is merely 10% or 30% better than another. However, when one option is 10 times or 100 times better, as is often the case in global health, redirecting funding is so important that it is almost as good as adding new funding directly towards the superior intervention.

Ord says that although determining certain aspects of cost-effectiveness is relatively straightforward (for example, the same amount of money can do exponentially more good in poor countries than in rich ones), it takes a lot of work to tease out which charities are the best; and that many people are considering the question from the wrong angle.

"One very common misconception is that we should pick our charities primarily by looking at the percentage of their budget that they allocate to operating expenses, such as salaries, marketing, and fundraising—what is sometimes referred to as the 'overhead ratio,'" he says. "The idea here is that the lower the overhead ratio, the better the charity, with the very best charities being the ones with the lowest overheads. […] However, this is a very flawed approach to charity evaluation: what matters, ultimately, is the impact a charity has per dollar received, and there is no reason to believe this is correlated with overhead expenditures. It is, for example, an open question whether charities should pay their employees more or less than they currently do: lower salaries means more money left for other projects, but higher salaries mean better employees."

But however compelling a case Giving What We Can makes for particular donation strategies (posting their complete methodology so members can make their own evaluations), ultimately these are simply recommendations. The bottom line for Giving What We Can is in the name. Presently 1,800 members are doing just that, with donation pledges that are slated to amount to over $700 million.

In 2011, as Giving What We Can's membership was surpassing the $100 million mark in pledges, Ord, MacAskill, and fellow Oxfordian Nick Beckstead co-founded the Centre for Effective Altruism, giving a proper name to the movement to focus on combining compassion, reason, and data to create "evidence-driven interventions." With a mission "[t]o foster projects which use evidence and analysis to help others as much as possible" [emphasis in original], the Centre for Effective Altruism became the umbrella organization for projects like Giving What We Can, LessWrong ("an online community for people who try to think rationally"), GiveWell (a nonprofit evaluator of charity effectiveness), 80,000 Hours (a nonprofit providing free guidance on finding a fulfilling career that will have maximal positive impact on the world), and the Global Priorities Project ("a think tank which develops policy solutions to pressing global challenges which are mistakenly neglected"),

As if Ord's success at spreading the Effective Altruism movement wasn't self-evident, during a 2013 TED Talk Peter Singer, the very man who first motivated Ord in this direction, held Ord up as an example of effective altruism as it lives and breathes, noting that Ord plans to give everything he earns over £18,000 per year to charity, which over the course of his lifetime will be enough to cure 80,000 people of blindness in developing countries.

In 1972, seven years before Ord was born, Singer took issue with the belief that philosophers "have no special role to play in public affairs," while at the same time noting that philosophizing is not enough:

What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously? In this instance, taking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it. The philosopher will not find it any easier than anyone else to alter his attitudes and way of life to the extent that, if I am right, is involved in doing everything that we ought to be doing. At the very least, though, one can make a start. The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together. […] If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

For Toby Ord, those are words to live by.


About the Author

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

Introducing Stitches!

Your Path to Meaningful Connections in the World of Health and Medicine
Connect, Collaborate, and Engage!

Coming Soon - Stitches, the innovative chat app from the creators of HWN. Join meaningful conversations on health and medical topics. Share text, images, and videos seamlessly. Connect directly within HWN's topic pages and articles.

Be the first to know when Stitches starts accepting users

The Latest from Best of Best

The Art of Sharing the Wealth
The Art of Sharing the Wealth

The world's richest African-American, Robert F. Smith may also be the most generous, and he's made making lives better an integral part of his personal success.

The ACLU: Freely Giving Toward the Cause of Freedom
The ACLU: Freely Giving Toward the Cause of Freedom

The Land of the Free wouldn't be so free without the ACLU, which for a century has zealously fought for the rights of all Americans⎯for free.

Rick Steves: Using Travel to Better the World
Rick Steves: Using Travel to Better the World

“Keep on travelin’,” he says at the end of most of his travelogues. But for Rick Steves, it’s a catchphrase that is no less about self-betterment than sightseeing. And he walks the walk.

Stay Connected

Health Cloud