Believe It or Not, You're Rich

PHOTO How rich are you? How do you determine how much you can afford to give to charity?ABC News Photo Illustration
How rich are you? How do you determine how much you can afford to give to charity?

You're a lot richer than you think. Seriously.

One British Web site is pushing that message and trying to not-so-subtly guilt you into giving some of that hard-earned money to charity.

Many families in America might not be feeling so rich these days, but the site compares your salary with those of workers around the world. There is a reason, after all, that companies like to manufacture clothes, cars, TVs and just about everything else overseas.

Global Rich List asks users to simply plug in their salary and then see how rich they actually are.

Make $50,000 a year, and you are the 59,029,289th richest person in the world. Not quite a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet, but you are doing better than 99.02 percent of the world. But remember, there are more than 6.7 billion people living on this planet.

Now, let's say you make $200,000 a year. It's not too bad by American standards but not quite millionaire status. But at that salary, the site pegs you as the 786,570th richest person in the world and in the top 0.01 percent of the population.

The site then asks you how you feel about learning your relative wealth.

"A bit richer, we hope. Richer and ready to give some of your newly found wealth to those who need it most," the site says. "It's not hard -- just slip your hand in your pocket and pull out something special. Something that can help redress the balance -- and also make you feel uncommonly good."

The site then prods you to donate just one hour's salary to start making a difference and gives visitors examples of how the money could be put to use. For instance, it says $8 could buy you 15 organic apples or 25 fruit trees for farmers in Honduras to grow and then sell the fruit at their local market.

Currently, Global Rich List supports CARE, a humanitarian organization that works to improve global poverty.

'Well Off' in the Western World

The creators of the site, Poke, a design and marketing firm in London, said the site, which dates back to 2003, was originally conceived as a project for a client.

They were inspired by seeing one of Forbes magazine's richest people lists, Poke CEO Nicolas Roope said.

"When you put (the magazine list) down you feel terrible, poor, insignificant," Roope said. "But then this is ridiculous because of how well off we are in the Western world."

The client ended up not wanting to buy the site, but the company decided "we'll do it anyway," Roope said.

Poke decided to support CARE because the organization is doing great work, Roope said. The site has raised roughly $25,000 for the group.

But the real value of the site, he said, is the publicity it creates for CARE.

"It would probably have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not millions, if they had paid for (the publicity)," he said.

Melissa S. Brown, associate director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, said it's unclear how much a site like Poke's can actually influence people to give.

"I think many people who are not particularly aware of the economic circumstances in different countries around the world will be surprised," she said. "The part that I am less certain about is if they will take that surprise and turn it into the type of action that the site seeks."

Brown said most studies have shown that people are motivated to give because they want to have an impact, they want to bring about some change.

"There are very few instances, except possibly in religious giving, where people give out of guilt," she said.

Lower Pay, Lower Costs

Brown noted that in this global economy, residents of developed countries tend to have relatively high incomes. But she points out that while incomes might be low in many parts of the third world, so are prices for many goods.

"People with very low income, in some countries, can live very well because their income goes further than ours," Brown said. Any comparison of world incomes, she said, should also factor in so-called purchasing parity.

Not all families give to charity, but of those who do, Brown said, the average is 3 percent of their income. She said that rich, poor and middle class families who do give all tend to give the same percent of income.

The majority of giving comes from individuals, said Naomi Levine, the executive director of New York University's George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. Only nine to 10 percent of philanthropic donations come from corporations.

"There are many reasons why people give," Levine said. "Some people are genuinely altruistic -- they feel good when they help somebody and make a gift."

Generally, individuals may be inclined to donate if they believe in the organization or institution, Levine said.

$73 for AIDS Orphans

Donating toward a cause that fights global poverty -- a seemingly distant experience for many Americans -- is probably driven by an emotional experience such as visiting a developing nation or having read about a poor country, said Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice.

Or, it could be driven by the altruistic belief of giving back toward a cause you support because you are in a position to do so, he said.

Upon informing a user of his or her wealth relative to the global population, the site provides a handful of examples of how much a donation can accomplish. "All you have to do is make a choice," the Web site says.

While guilt might convince some individuals to give small donations, it cannot explain the majority of transformative donations, he said.

"Getting someone to give is only half the battle," Gelles said. "Getting them to give intelligently and effectively -- that's the other half."

According to the site, a donation of $73 could buy a new mobile health clinic for AIDS orphans in Uganda.

Claims such as these, which point to specific ways a donation can help others, are very effective.

"Concreteness, tangibility for most philanthropists is key," Gelles said. "You can get more people to give money for bed nets to prevent malaria than to invest in research to prevent malaria."

"The tangibility of the bed nets and the number of people who have bed nets and are protected from malaria, even if it's a tiny number, seems more tangibly effective than research that 10 years down the road might save 100 million people."

Individuals from modest backgrounds who consider themselves philanthropic give between two and 10 percent of their gross income to charity, Gelles said. Other factors that encourage philanthropy include being asked to donate to a cause by a good friend (sometimes known as "reciprocal philanthropy"), adherence to religious mandates to give back and personal experience associated with the cause. Looking to benefit from tax deductions is not a driving factor behind personal philanthropy, Levine said.

But in the current economy, philanthropic giving is down across the board.

"It's a real decrease, driven by a decreased sense of well-being, which is precisely the moment when the well-being of a really substantial proportion of the population is threatened," Gelles said. "The comparative well-being of people who typically give doesn't encourage them to give at this moment."