Recently, some Chilean colleagues explained to me why they chose a starfish as their nonprofit’s logo, and the story behind their reasoning resonated with me perfectly. A young girl is on a beach with thousands of starfish. A very ‘wise' adult sees her throwing them back into the ocean one at a time. The adult asks her, “Why are you throwing those starfish back into the sea?” The girl says, “To save them of, course.” The wise adult responds, “That’s ridiculous you can’t save all those starfish.” The little girl responds, “No but I can save all the ones I throw back!”
In 2013, my wife Diana and I provided the seed money for Peter Singer's organization The Life You Can Save (TLYCS) and I became the volunteer Executive Director. We did this because we shared the perspective of the little girl — we couldn’t save everyone suffering from the devastating effects of extreme poverty, but with a portion of the financial resources we were lucky enough to have, we could save some. We also did not subscribe to the oft-quoted aphorism that “charity begins at home.” We believed, and still do, that all things being equal, the life of a girl in Kenya is of equal value to a girl living on Bainbridge Island, Washington, our home. Once we acknowledged that belief, simple math allowed us to see that a dollar goes dramatically further in sub-Saharan Africa than in the United States. So it was clear to us that supporting effective international nonprofits was the way for us to save the most starfish — so to speak.
But why support the growth of an intermediary, or “meta-charity”, as TLYCS is often referred to, rather than donate directly to great nonprofits? Again, simple math (and a bit of a gamble) is the short answer. Peter Singer, Diana, and I all suspected that if we built an organization that promoted the idea of effective giving and also publicized some great international NGO’s, we could raise at least an incremental $3 for every dollar we spent on our own operation; and at the same time we could also advance the concept of impactful giving and help challenge the entrenched belief that “charity begins at home,” thereby mobilizing a potential wealth of funds to interventions helping those who are most in need.
Four years later, it is clear that the gamble has paid off. Our 2017 Year in Review reports that last year we raised $2.7 million for our recommended nonprofits on a spend of about $300,000 — $9 for every dollar we spent on our operating budget up from a multiple of greater than $3:$1 per year when we first started. We are growing the revenue we raise at about 50% and our spending is relatively flat, enhancing our value proposition.
A couple of months ago, I was meeting with one of our research advisors who is a well-known Harvard University psychology professor and a significant donor to TLYCS. He told me that he was very happy to take a “gamble” donating to TLYCS rather than directly to one of our recommended nonprofits, because he trusted me. I replied that if he read our 2016 Year in Review, it should be clear by the ratio of money spent to incremental money raised that his investment was no “gamble”. I added that this was true even if you discount our multiple by 66%. He thought for a moment and said, “then I should be giving all of my charitable dollars directly to you guys — this is magic.” I leave it to you to imagine what my response was.
Despite the “magic,” I still have trouble convincing potential donors of the wisdom of supporting our meta-charity. We put great effort into designing our website in order to generate donations to our recommended nonprofits, but offline, I am working hard to raise money for TLYCS. Why? The simple answer is that based on our performance thus far, scaling TLYCS could dramatically increase our impact. Our current growth plan is outlined here in our strategic report.
My hope is that some of you will read the strategic report and get excited about the opportunity that Diana and I, as well as many other donors, have taken advantage of to do an enormous amount of good.