What About a Radical Change? Stories of Giving Money Away

We’ve talked about incremental change quite a bit here on the BFJN blog—the power of starting with small lifestyle shifts to live more simply and buy more justly. But lately I’ve been thinking more about big transformations, following on Jesus’ call to a young, rich, and powerful man (in the book of Matthew, chapter 19) to give away all of his possessions to the poor. In relation to the rest of the world, and particularly the many poor of the world, I am also young(ish), rich, and powerful. How then does this exhortation to give away wealth not apply to me? So the next move is to start translating this conviction into action. How much more money could my husband and I actually give away? What percentage of our income should we shoot for? Where do we want to give?

Because our radical change can save and improve the lives of the most vulnerable. I continue to be astounded at the statistic that the number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.25 per day) has been cut in half since 1990. Although some will attribute this success largely to rapid economic growth in some of the world’s largest countries—read: China—there are thousands of organizations around the world that are working to empower the poorest people across the globe through education, health care, relief, and development. Our individual donations often go to these organizations.

The call is clear, the potential impact is enormous—now it’s all about how to do the kind of giving Jesus’ words push me toward. So as I did last time I wrote on the blog, I’m turning to stories for inspiration, to give me a sense of what it would look like to more radically share my own wealth.

First up are the high rollers, the millionaires and billionaires who are donating large portions of their fortunes for various objectives. Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates have pledged to give away a majority of their billions during their lifetimes and are pushing others among the most wealthy set to do the same. Rick Warren, of Purpose-Driven Life fame, practices “reverse tithing”—keeping 10% of his income and giving away 90%. But I love the story of Chuck Feeney, the octogenarian founder of the ubiquitous airport duty-free shops, who has worked mostly in secret since the mid-1980s to rid himself of $7.5 billion by funding projects like an overhaul of Vietnam’s health care system. After all of his billions, his net worth in 2012 was $2 million.

Okay, you might say, these folks give away a lot of money, but in the end $2 million is still $2 million, not pocket change. What about something slightly more relatable? The organization Giving What We Can, with now more than 1,000 members, draws people together to pledge to give at least 10% of their incomes to effective charities for the rest of their lives. The founder, Toby Ord, makes about $70,000 per year as a professor at Oxford, but lives on $30,000, estimating that at that rate he will be able to give away about $1.5 million over his lifetime.

One Medford couple, Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, who made the pledge to Giving What We Can, live on about $15,000 of expenses (not including taxes and savings) and give away about half of their combined income of $250,000 each year. Before they were earning their current relatively large incomes, however, they were still giving away substantial amounts – $28,000 out of a salary of $86,000, or before that, $10,000 out of $40,000. And even as they have had children they have continued to raise the share of income they donate each year.

Inspired and challenged by the choices of these individuals and families, I’m going back to my budget with an eye toward cutting, thoughts about percentages, and a focus on what my dollars can do. How do you approach budgeting and giving? What generosity challenges have you recently taken up?

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