Philanthropist Footballers: The Bigger Picture

By Joe Slater

(Cross-posted at The Life You Can Save)


Manchester United footballer Juan Mata made headlines by pledging to donate 1% of his income to charity. He has been hailed as “the nicest guy in football”, which may well be true. Mata’s salary is estimated at about £7 million per year, which, if accurate, would make his donation £70,000 a year. Certainly a boon to the charity coffers.

Typically, the sort of praise Mata has received is reserved for people who do something extraordinarily good. Is giving 1% really that good, or is it something that most of us should be doing anyway? Is he being praised just because he’s doing more than most of us, on top of being independently famous and likeable? As praiseworthy as Mata’s decision to pledge 1% may be, we’d do well to view it in a broader context.


Philanthropic Context

Juan Mata’s pledge has been seen as a remarkable act of generosity. Pledging even 1%, as Mata has done, is unusual. In fact, about 36% of people in the UK make regular (monthly or weekly) charitable donations. However, of those who do give monthly, the mean donation is £37 – 1.6% of average monthly income.  Obviously, Mata’s donation will be considerably more than the average – at about £6,000 a month – but as a percentage it isn’t remarkable when compared to those who do give regularly.

Some give considerably more. One example can be found in a growing movement of philanthropists, united under the banner of “effective altruism”, who have been seriously considering how they can help others. Giving What We Can, a group founded in the UK, recommends that people pledge 10% of their income. Peter Singer’s charity, The Life You Can Save, suggests a sliding scale. The rationale being that if you earn more, you can afford to give a larger percentage away. It recommends that the super-rich – which includes all top footballers – donate at least 14.7%.

While the norm seems to be “donate occasionally and with negligible portions of one’s wealth”, many suspect that with more than 700 million people in the world still in extreme poverty, this is not enough.


Religious and Historical Contexts

All major religions place huge significance on giving to the needy. Jewish and Christian communities for most of the last two millennia have typically required contributions to be given to churches or those in need as tithes (usually ten percent). In Islam, zakat (a tax on the wealthy of at least 2.5%) is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. While zakat is compulsory further voluntary giving has traditionally been expected. For Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains, dāna is the practice of giving to those in need. Our predecessors, heavily influenced by these religions, apparently regarded giving considerably more than 1% as the normal, done thing.

While past people might have been more charitable, we arguably have significantly stronger obligations to give. Not only are today’s wealthy people considerably wealthier, but we also have a greater awareness of – and ability to prevent – unnecessary suffering in the developing world.


Where should you give?

Juan Mata’s pledge was to donate as part of Common Goal, a movement by Streetfootballworld, an NGO uniting many grassroots organisations around the world. The movement’s objective is to get as many footballers as possible to make a pledge like Mata, in order bring about social change via football. Most of the charities involved place an emphasis on empowering young people. The charities involved have different aims in different parts of the world. The onus is on “employability through football” in Europe, while in Africa it’s using football to “educate young people on topics ranging from HIV/AIDS to gender equality”. In practice, the charities do all sorts of things, ranging from providing footballs or appropriate playing facilities to organising sport-based youth-work or employability training. All are somehow linked to football.

When we consider how cost-effective a charity is, we think about how much good it can do for a certain amount of money. How much does it cost to save a life, or to prevent someone becoming blind? Streetfootballworld has not been evaluated by GiveWell – a huge resource for would-be givers which analyses how successful charities are.

It is hard to compare charities that do very different things, but whether or not we agree with the exact methodology employed by groups like GiveWell, we certainly accept that some interventions are more important than others. As some charities are a thousand times more effective than others, there are certainly some clear answers about where it is a good idea (and a bad idea) to give.

Despite winning awards for impact, I suspect that Streetfootballworld would not be ranked particularly highly in terms of effectiveness Because you get less ‘bang for your buck’ in Europe than in the developing world, this is likely to negatively impact any evaluation of the charity’s effectiveness. Another reason it might fare poorly is the sheer number of charities involved. Streetfooballworld brings together 120 charities. If even some of these do not use the money effectively, this would seriously detract from the effectiveness of the whole NGO. Another factor is that all the charities are football-related. It seems unlikely that the best ways to help young people all involve football in some capacity.

Part of Mata’s motivation for giving to this movement is presumably that he is a footballer. He may have thought it makes sense to give to a charity he has some link to. We might be reminded of celebrities who raise money for charities about illnesses they’ve had or seen a family member suffer from. If what he wants to do is help as much as he can, he would probably be better off donating to the Against Malaria Foundation (one of GiveWell’s recommended charities), which is very cost-effective in saving lives. Even if he does want to focus on something closer to his heart, it seems that his donations could still do a lot more good if they were targeted towards those football-related charities in the developing world.


Benefits of Modest Giving?

Mata’s objective of attracting other footballers to make a similar pledge might speak in favour of setting the level at only 1%. It does seem likely that some footballers who might be willing to sign up at 1% would be scared off by 10% (Giving What We Can’s recommendation) or more. 1fortheworld is another group which aims to convince people to donate 1% of their income to effective aid charities. This strategy is designed to make it as easy as possible to commit, so as many people as possible sign up.

For this reason, perhaps this type of pledge, which is considerably more modest that those espoused by the groups mentioned above, will result in more money raised in total. Granted, this is a tricky balancing act: you want your pledge to be big so as to make a bigger difference, but smaller so as not to intimidate potential new-recruits. It is estimated that if all European players donated 1% of their pay, this would raise a whopping £1.8 million per week. If this attitude spread beyond football, and everyone in the developed world made a similar pledge, this would be enough to eradicate extreme poverty.


Yes, let’s celebrate Mata’s generosity. Let’s also hope he is successful in convincing many super-wealthy athletes to act in similar ways, and that they all take seriously the idea of giving where it will help others most. That would be a goal we can all appreciate.