Stephen McGinty: Spend it like Beckham

We may not earn millions like the superstar footballer, but perhaps we should all follow his example when it comes to making charitable donations, writes Stephen McGinty

I had lunch once with David Beckham. Or, to be more precise, I sat four stools down from the footballer at the Fountain Coffee Shop in the Beverley Hills Hotel. I was talking to the hotel’s PR and when Beckham realised my profession, he tucked the peak of his baseball cap down a little lower on his brow, just like a suspect in a caper movie.

The legendary little diner, whose wallpaper and steel stools, which are bolted to the floor, have remained unchanged for decades, became a regular spot for Beckham after he was finished training with the LA Galaxy. It remains to be seen where he chooses to breakfast in Paris, but wherever it is, I hope some kind customer picks up the bill one day. It would be a surprising gesture, one he wouldn’t expect and I’d say he deserves a free coffee and croissant.

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I’ve slowly come round to David Beckham. Perhaps his decision to abandon the skirts and leather catsuits in favour of white shirts, black ties and suits, has brought him a little closer to my own sartorial taste. Or his appearance on Jonathan Ross, when he confessed to being able to count his friends on one hand and still have a few fingers left, making, as he did, a clear distinction between people he knew – of which there were many – and actual friends, an honesty I found refreshing. Or his demeanour during the Olympics, when he appeared never boastful or proud but correctly ambassadorial.

But if I was swithering at all, his decision this week to donate his £160,000 a week wages for playing for Paris St-Germain to a children’s hospital in Paris pushed me over the edge. While I may not actually purchase a David Beckham No7 shirt, rrp £70, I will be wearing one in spirit. Coming as it did a few days after the revelation that Tamara Ecclestone spent £30,676.25 on Cristal champagne (including a service charge of £4,001.25) at Aura nightclub in London, it served as a welcome corrective about the super rich.

Only the most hard-hearted cynic could view Beckham’s gesture as anything other than generous and an example to all. Those who will argue that he doesn’t need the money or that it is only an attempt to gain publicity should ponder if anyone can really do without more than £3 million and if he actually needs any more publicity? Say he is indeed worth £190m, as has been reported, then this sum comes out at 2 per cent of his savings, it sounds a small amount – but if only we were all so generous.

For the simple fact is that, while Britain remains one of the most charitable nations in the world, the amount we donate each year is dropping. Last year the 55 per cent of the British public donated £9.3 billion to charitable causes, (the remaining 45 per cent gave nothing) a drop of £1.7bn from the previous year and the smallest total since 2004.

The typical amount donated per month fell from £12 in 2009 to £10 last year and while managerial and professional groups are consistently the most likely to give, those who did dropped from 70 to 66 per cent. Women remain the most generous of the sexes, with those over 45 the most likely to give the largest amount, around, £15 per month.

So, if David Beckham contributed 2 per cent of his wealth, how does the average Brit compare? If the average wage is £26,500 and the average charitable donation is £100 per year this is the equivalent of 0.4 per cent.

Those charities we donate to do say a lot about our culture. The most popular causes are medical research, hospitals, hospices and then children and young people. After taking care of the sick and the young, we look after our pets. Donations to animal charities are ahead of those for the disabled, homeless or schools. Yet, it is understandable that charitable giving has fallen, given the fact that we are in the worst economic climate since the 1930s.

What is interesting, however, is that one academic has chosen such grim economic times to launch a new charitable project that is bold, to say the least.

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If the actions of David Beckham have given other highly-paid football players pause for thought, then the actions of Toby Ord, a research fellow in Ethics at Oxford University, will surely give David Beckham pause for even greater thought.

A few years ago, Ord made a decision that he could live comfortably on £20,000 a year after tax and that everything he earned over this sum would be donated to charity. He later revised the figure down to £18,000 and now donates the remainder of his £39,300 salary to good causes.

Yet what causes were most worthy of his generosity? He spent seven years developing a system that would allow him, and now governments, to rank charities according to their effectiveness.

While other people would simply analyse the percentage each charity spent on its own running costs, Ord sought to drill down deeper and find out which ones delivered the greatest return on money invested in terms of quality-adjusted life years, so not only was a life saved but also how many extra years could that person enjoy and at what level of quality of life?

Ord discovered that, according to his calculations, some charities were 10,000 times most effective than others. So, for example, £1 donated to the most efficient was the equivalent in value to £10,000 being dropped in the collection bucket for the least. As an example he points out that it costs £25,000 to train a guide dog for the blind, which doesn’t cure blindness but greatly improves the life of one afflicted person. However, for the same sum, 2,000 people could be cured of blindness in developing countries. As a result of his research, Ord has decided that the most effective charities are those that concentrate on a single issue and now his resources go to three charities: Deworm the World and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), which vaccinate children against intestinal parasites for 50p per child per year and the Against Malaria Foundation, which donates mosquito nets for £3 each.

Ord has now set up an organisation, GivingWhatYouCan which seeks people to pledge to donate 10 per cent of their income over their lifetime to charity. It has already signed up 264 people – including a yoga teacher, civil servant and moral philosopher – in 17 countries.

I wonder what he would make of Beckham’s decision? He would probably conclude that it was a good start and served as a high-profile example of altruism that might encourage more people to step up their charitable donations. I suspect, however, that he might question whether an existing children’s hospital was the best use of such funds, balanced against 1.5 million new mosquito nets or six million children vaccinated for another year.

What is clear is that we could all, from a multi-millionaire footballer to the average Joe, be doing more. Ord has argued that a couple with no kids earning £60,000 after tax fall into the top 1 per cent of the world’s population and would remain in this category even after donating 10 per cent of their income. A couple with two kids earning £26,000 are in the top 13 per cent. But the problem is that people don’t feel their “wealth” because we live in a consumer society that encourages us to think not about what we do have, but about what we don’t. But this can be spun around, those who do give generously to charity say (or so I’m told as, sadly and selfishly, I don’t fall into this category) that the mental benefits vastly outweigh any financial loss.

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The inspiration for GivingWhatYouCan was an essay written in 1972 by a professor of bioethics, Peter Singer, who stated: “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.” Or, put another way, perhaps we should all spend it like Beckham.