Doing Good Better: Donating, Lending and Volunteering to Alleviate Extreme Poverty

(This article is a write-up of a presentation given by Heather McLaughlin 30th November, 2014 at the monthly meeting of Sunday Assembly Melbourne.)

HeatherClose-upMarimbaI could call myself a micro-philanthropist.  I could even call myself an international financier.  But in actual fact I am merely a semi-retired teacher (a single older woman on a modest income) who wants to do what I can for others, without feeling it is a personal hardship.

So many grim events happen around the world that it would be easy to become depressed. To feel helpless. What can just one person do? But I choose to believe that each of us can actually do significant things to help others around the world.  It’s surprisingly enjoyable, and generosity is certainly good for our mental health.

Some people say  “Give until it hurts.”  I believe more in the response: “No, give till it feels better.” Over recent years I have been donating 10% of my annual income to alleviate extreme poverty.  I also have a significant amount that I lend and re-lend to borrowers of microcredit loans through Kiva (recycling my $20,000 deposited has so far led to $90,500 lent). Volunteering to raise funds for Oxfam through planning schools concerts is another major part of my life (10 concerts in 2014 raised $24,400).

I don’t do this to make myself feel better, but because I believe it is only fair that those of us who drew the luck card in where and when and to whom we were born owe it to help those around the world who were unlucky in the birth lottery.  Nevertheless, it DOES make me feel better.  There is a surprising buoyancy that comes each day from knowing that my personal money, efforts and effective giving help perhaps thousands of people each year to get a better chance in life.

And in many ways, despite the news reports of terrible things happening, life IS getting better for many people around the world.  Although of course it is awful that 18,000 children die daily from preventable causes, it is much better than in 1990 when the figure was 30,000 – even though world population was smaller then.  (Hans Rosling’s video clips show statistics that are grounds for optimism.) Millions of people in extreme poverty are having fewer children, living healthier lives, eating better and having the opportunity to go to school. And we can each have a small part in accelerating this trend.

So what are the best ways to help others around the world, given our limited individual resources of money, time, energy and motivation?


1. GIVE EFFECTIVELY:  Get ‘Bang for your buck’

The Life You Can SaveAlthough I had always donated sporadically to various groups, in recent years my giving has become more organized. The concept of EFFECTIVE ALTRUISM espoused by Peter Singer and groups such as The Life You Can Save (after the title of his book) is a powerful one, and many people have done excellent research to show that where you donate is perhaps even more important than how much you give.

Thus, $100 can be a drop in the ocean to train a guide dog for a blind person in the US (total cost: $40,000).

– Or it can cure blindness in 4 people. (Fred Hollows Foundation)

– It can provide garden equipment for 5 families so they can feed themselves better. (Oxfam)

– It can help 40 people in a village get access to clean water. (WaterAid)

– It can prevent malaria through providing bed-nets for 30 people. (Against Malaria Foundation)

– It can rid 200 children of worms. (Evidence Action)

– Or it can enable vitamins to be part of basic foodstuffs for 400 children. (Project Healthy Children)

Just knowing that these are options makes one more aware of where to give – how your money can do the most good.



Giving One PercentGiving What We CanThe second aspect of my donations in recent years is planning to give a specific percentage of my income. The group Giving One Percent suggests that almost everyone living in a developed country can contribute, and Peter Singer’s initial proposal is that this is a start. The group Giving What We Can expands this to 10% or more, encouraging some of us to be more ambitious and to actually sign a pledge to do this. The “My Giving” part of the website enables keeping track of personal donations.

So I have taken this pledge. I find it no great hardship and enjoy giving a few hundred dollars each month to different groups. I feel that my $3000 or so donated effectively each year can make a significant difference.



KivaAnother way to ‘do good better’ is to lend through the Kiva microcredit site, and this has become a great interest of mine over the last 6 years. Millions of dollars are lent every week around the world, and the repayment rate is around 98.8% – even though most of it goes to people who do not have regular bank accounts! A $25 loan can be paid off in anything from 5 months to 10 years (– be sure to check the ‘repayment’ button for details). There are thousands of borrowers to choose from at any given time – from Mongolian cobblers to Armenian strawberry farmers, from Guatemalan weavers to sellers of dried fish in Sierra Leone. Through Kiva a chunk of my retirement savings has been lent over and over, and I’ll continue to do this while I can.

Of great satisfaction also to me on Kiva are the teams of lenders (everything from Beer to Baha’i).  The highest-lending team:  ($18 million) is the Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-religious, (shortened to A+), which has over 32,000 members around the world. Australia was until recently the country team that had lent the most – it’s now eclipsed by Canada.

I am co-captain of three teams, including the A+ one and a general international group, Paying It Forward.

Meetings of Kiva lenders are held in Melbourne every few months, where those of us keen on lending can meet in person.

On the 17th of every month Kiva repayments come in, and choosing new borrowers for re-loaning is a pleasurable activity for lenders around the world. Often there are ‘team loans’ chosen relevant to the group: noodle loans for the Flying Spaghetti Monster team, glorious outfits or woven cloth for the Fabulous Fabrics Fans, borrowers named Darwin for the A+ team.

Personally I find it a wonderful place to put savings.  Although there is a chance of losing some money, the benefits in ‘human interest’ far outweigh this. Updates on loans, as well as the regular repayments coming in, confirm that borrowers are gaining more control over their lives. There are wonderful stories of hard work and success, and the photos give insight into the way people live around the world.  American writer Bob Harris has travelled to visit many Kiva lenders, and his book about this is great background to the whole Kiva experience (The International Bank of Bob).

Lending on Kiva is like having your cake and eating it – again, and again, and again.



Oxfam AustraliaAs a school music teacher, I feel an effective way for me to volunteer is to organize concerts and arrange music performances. I choose to fundraise for Oxfam. The Melbourne concerts in recent years take time and effort that I feel reaps great benefits for both performers (mainly school children) and beneficiaries of the funds raised.

Everyone can find groups or activities that benefit others – cooking meals for refugees, talking to groups about alleviating poverty, helping at fundraising events.  An added benefit is working with others of like mind and the social interaction that usually stems from this. Volunteering in our communities is an ideal way to connect personally.



Everyone can do some good for other people – volunteering to help asylum seekers, joining a ‘Walk against Want’, making a donation to Oxfam.  Many of us can DO GOOD BETTER by being aware of the most effective uses of our money. Lending and re-lending through Kiva gives the security of knowing almost all of your money will be available in the future if needed. And we can encourage others to also be aware of the difference we can make in other peoples’ lives through talking and writing about what we do. (Peter Singer encourages us to do this to make ‘doing good better’ a wider concept.)

Personally, I feel I am making a difference. It’s a good antidote to depressing news. I get enormous satisfaction out of all these activities in my life, so I encourage others to try some of them. That’s why I perhaps SHOULD introduce myself an ‘international micro-financier’. What do you think?


– Heather McLaughlin



Jeffrey Sachs The End of Poverty

Bill Clinton  Giving

Peter Singer The Life You Can Save

Bob Harris The International Bank of Bob (about Kiva)




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