Meet Bram Schaper, one of the most inspiring people I’ve met in a long time

Rutger Bregman | 14-12-2022

Occasionally you come across people in life that just put a smile on your face. This happened to me a few months ago when I first met Bram Schaper. Even as a young boy, Bram was crazy about trains. His biggest dream was to become a train driver.

When Bram went to college after high school he decided to push his ambitions even further. He wanted to become the director of NS – the ‘boss of all trains’. And lo and beyold, Bram was hired at Nederlandse Spoorwegen (the Dutch Railways) and quickly climbed the ranks within the organisation. His talent must have been immediately obvious, but I think his kindness also made all the difference. It is a rarity to come across such a warm personality (perhaps what biologists would call ‘survival of the friendliest’!).

At 24, Bram was already managing more than 200 people. When he became responsible for all the train drivers in Amsterdam he decided to begin training to become one himself. His boss thought it a strange request – ‘Bram, at your level you don’t have to do that anymore’. However, Bram believed it would make him a better manager and it was also the realisation of his boyhood dream.

Bram was allowed to complete the training, but only in his spare time. After a year he obtained his ‘blue driving license’ and from then he regularly travelled to work during rush hour on a ‘twelve carriage double-decker’ – as the driver. ‘At Amsterdam I disembarked and then had another nice journey’.

Naturally the other drivers loved Bram because they had never worked with such an experienced manager before. As Bram received promotion after promotion he eventually became responsible for all the service staff in the stations – more than 1,400 people. It was a tough job. Reorganisation was needed. Bram often found it difficult to sleep due to the stress of it all and would often select a podcast to lull him to sleep.

Then it happened.

One night, Bram was listening to an interview with Stijn Bruers, a moral philosopher from Belgium. Stijn discussed the movement of ‘effective altruism’ – a group of enthusiastic people who aim to do as much good as possible with their limited resources (time/money/energy). Imagine, Stijn said, asking a fireman on his deathbed what the best moment of his life was. You would imagine that he would tell you about that time, years ago, when he entered a burning house and pulled a child from their crib to save their life.

Indeed, Bram thought, that would be deeply meaningful experience. But Stijn continued: as a citizen of a rich country with a decent job, you can do this every year. You can save a life every year by donating to the most effective charities.

Bram, now at 34 years old, couldn’t sleep at all. ‘It made me so excited that I found myself behind my laptop at 3:30 in the morning consumed with the idea of studying moral philosophy’. Bram certainly didn’t want to leave his role at NS (‘the greatest company there is’) but instead decided to donate a good portion of his salary. This is how he first came into contact with Doneer Effectief.

This Dutch organisation helps people get the most bang for their buck with their donations and inheritances – whether it’s fighting climate change, malaria, poverty or animal suffering in the livestock industry. The organisation selects the best causes based on independent, scientific research. For example, extensive studies show that you can save (!) a life with a donation of 5,000 euros to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Bram made an appointment to speak with the chair of the Effectief Doneren foundation, Andrea de Wildt, telling her that he would love to volunteer a few hours a week. They hadn’t been talking for 15 minutes when Andrea posed a question; ‘We are looking for a new director – could that be the job for you?’

Hours later, Bram got back on the train home, walked to his apartment overlooking Leiden Central, and told his partner Carine:

‘I’m going to quit my job at NS.’

‘Then you must have had a nice afternoon’, she responded dryly.

The surprise at the NS management office was palpable. If anyone was going to work at the Railways until their pension, it was Bram, wasn’t it? Why would you walk away to half the salary as the sole employee of a small foundation with only ten volunteers?

It puzzled Bram himself, too. How many times had he fixed a silver NS pin to the shirt of a colleague? Those pins were awarded after 25 years of service, and gold ones after 50 years. Bram had spoken at many an anniversary party. He knew how attached people were to their work at NS – after all, so was he. ‘Sometimes it felt as if I was fixing that pin on myself because I knew it was only a matter of time until I had one too’.

No alt text provided for this image
Bram in his NS-coloured apartment

But, things turned out differently. Bram changed course. On the 1st of August this year [2022], he signed the giving pledge of the Doneer Effectief sister organisation, Giving What We Can, based in the UK. In doing so, he promised to give 10 percent of his income to effective causes for the rest of his life. Even more importantly was what Bram was going to do with his time, because that same day he also officially joined the Doneer Effectief team.

Now this is what I call ‘moral ambition’. I have a huge soft spot for people like Bram, who don’t just talk, but also do. Who don’t only see objections, but also possibilities. And who show their ambition and kindness at the same time.

Bram’s immediate colleagues were sad, shocked and even angry when he announced he was leaving. But not much later, they came together to raise a hefty sum of money for him (or at least he got to choose the charity it was donated to!)

I hope that people like Bram, organisations like Doneer Effectief, and also the newly founded Ten Percent Club can inspire many people to, in their own words, make giving ‘normal, effective, social and fun’. That being said, if you are still looking for a charity to donate to this winter, or for the rest of your life, look no further than

Bram’s photos were taken by photographer Maartje ter Horst, who not entirely coincidentally is also my wife 😉

Orange cross