Guest column: Creating a culture of effective philanthropy in Aspen

Charlie Bresler
Guest column

While it’s true you can spend $10,000 (or more) on a bottle of wine in Aspen, that’s not why people live here. Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke and other founding fathers and mothers re-envisioned Aspen as a place that would revive people’s minds, bodies and spirits and allow them to re-engage in the world energized and as better human beings. It was conceived as a place to fix the world, not to consume it — a place to solve problems, not create them.

Yet today, Aspen is often justifiably criticized as a center of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious wealth. While there’s truth to that characterization, there also is opportunity: With wealth comes power and influence, and much of that power here in Aspen is already focused on improving the world. But we can do better, and we should.

On Wednesday night, I will be in town talking about effective philanthropy. In particular, this means focusing on using our relative wealth and privilege to reduce the devastating effects of extreme poverty. The fact is that there are 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day — a fact of life for approximately 44 percent of people in developing countries and 14 percent globally. In his book “The Life You Can Save,” world-renowned moral philosopher Peter Singer argues that leading an ethical life involves using a portion of personal wealth and resources to efficiently alleviate the effects of extreme poverty. Consider the following facts:

• Eighteen-thousand children die each day from preventable causes associated with extreme poverty. For example, 700,000 children die yearly from malaria. These problems are essentially nonexistent in the developed world.

• The Against Malaria Foundation distributes insecticide-treated bed nets, which prevent malaria, at a cost of $3 each. That’s $3 to save a life.

• Population Services International estimates that it spends approximately $17.77 to extend a person’s health and life for one year.

• Ninety percent of all blindness and vision impairment is in the developing world. Eighty percent of these cases could be prevented or treated successfully.

The Seva Foundation and the Fred Hollows Foundation both offer surgeries in the developing world that can cure blindness for an estimated cost ranging from $25 to $125.

• Obstetric fistulas, serious childbirth injuries that are virtually nonexistent in developed countries, cause young women to be completely ostracized from their communities, leading to hopeless, nonproductive lives.

The Fistula Foundation provides surgeries that cure this condition for $450.

Yet in spite of these and many other effective opportunities to reduce premature death and unnecessary suffering, according to the “Money for Good” study — commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation, the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, the Metanoia Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation — only 35 percent of people do any research on the impact of their donations, and of those, 75 percent do less than two hours. More upsetting is that only 16 percent of individuals surveyed report that their highest priority is the impact of their donations.

The Ice Bucket Challenge and the Ebola crisis, at least when it came to Dallas, got our attention. But far more effective giving opportunities exist. I suggest that there is a useful distinction to be made between “warm glow” giving and “optimal” giving. Understanding this distinction helps make sense of our behavior. Most of our giving induces a “warm glow.” This charity is generally familial, personal, local or at least domestic. While these donations do not produce the most bang for the buck, they fulfill us emotionally: We can see the impact of our gifts (or at least imagine the impact) right in front of us.

Optimal giving, on the other hand, is when a donor wants to get the most bang for the buck. Since a dollar goes dramatically further in the developing world than in developed countries, and most extreme poverty and its effects are centered there, charities operating effectively in the developing world are best positioned to achieve optimal results.

The Aspen community can, and should, become a hotbed of effective philanthropy and optimal giving. Together, your community can develop a culture in which you support one another to use your privilege in a way that enhances our humanity and makes us a model for other communities.

Singer’s organization, The Life You Can Save, which I run, is one group that promotes effective philanthropy. Its website,, provides a wealth of information as well as 16 highly effective charities to donate to. I’ll be talking more about these ideas at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Limelight You’ll be on your way by 6:30. Beer and food specials will cost a few dollars, but the warm glow you’ll feel is complimentary.

Charlie Bresler is a social and clinical psychologist and former president of Men’s Wearhouse. He is currently executive director of The Life You Can Save.