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What Everyman Can Learn from Student Philanthropists


Terrie Temkin

I’m an avid NPR listener. For awhile, now, I’ve regularly been hearing a message from the Community Foundation of Broward (Florida) on my local station that goes something like this: Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are encouraging their fellow billionaires to pledge half their fortunes to charity. But why let them have all the fun. You can participate in the joy of giving by making a gift through the Community Foundation.

I don’t know how well people are responding to this proposition. While I think it’s extremely clever and I hope it’s successful, I’m sure a large number dismiss it, believing that the Gates and Buffets of the world can afford to give half their money away to charity and never even miss it. After all, Gates’ 2010 estimated net worth is $54 billion and most of us assume that one can still live pretty nicely on $27 billion. But for Main Street USA, where, according to the Federal Reserve Board’s 2010 survey, half of Americans have a net worth of less than $84,000, giving away a significant portion of your money to charity doesn’t seem very realistic.

Yet, three graduate students at Rutgers University think it’s doable. Philosophy majors Nick Beckstead, Tim Campbell and Mark Lee have made their own significant pledge to give away a set percentage of their annual income to causes that they feel will do the most good in the world – not just over the next few years, but for life.

The three say they were influenced by Australian applied ethics philosopher Peter Singer, who holds dual appointments as the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. In 1972 Singer published an essay entitled “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” in response to the mass starvation found in Bangladesh. In that article Singer argues that it is a moral imperative for persons of affluence to give more to humanitarian causes than they typically do: "People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified. When we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look 'well-dressed' we are not providing for any important need."

Few would classify graduate students as affluent and therefore individuals to be held to Singer’s standard. But in a December 11, 2010Wall Street Journal article by Shelly Banjo, “Pledging to Give What They Can,” Beckstead says. "Someone who makes $25,000 is in the top 3% of the world's wage earners." Campbell adds, "It puts things into perspective and makes you realize you're on a much higher ladder than you think."

When I read the Wall Street Journal article I was incredibly impressed and began sharing the story with friends, family and colleagues. The responses I got all credited the three for pledging something so admirable. But, almost to a person added that they’d like to follow the three over the next 10 years as they graduate, start to have families and take on obligations for feeding, sheltering, educating and paying health care costs for those families – especially in America, where the costs for such basics are far more than in many other parts of the world.

The three have obviously been told this to their face. Beckstead is again quoted in the Wall Street Journal article as saying, "When people see us pledging to give away their income, some are critical and say this is an idealistic idea that they'll realize is unworkable in the real world. We think otherwise; this is a long-term decision."

I believe that a clear vision and commitment to that vision are the first steps in actually creating the world we all want to live in. Beckstead, Campbell and Lee have that vision and commitment.  Whether or not they move away over the years from the level of financial commitment to which they’ve recently pledged, they will undoubtedly continue to give. And, right now, they stand as extraordinary role models. Obviously, they are role models for other young people, who might be influenced to give more of their discretionary funds to charity or even join or start a chapter of Giving What We Can – an organization pioneered in Oxford, England that the three are bringing to Rutgers.  But they, probably more than Gates and Buffet, are role models for the rest of us too. After all, if they can make this commitment on a 20-something’s salary, the rest of us should be able to pledge at least a bit more.  

There is beautiful saying by Leo Burnett, “If you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.” Keep reaching Nick Beckstead, Tim CampbellandMark Lee.

Posted On: 2011-01-29 18:03:25