Monday, January 25, 2010

"The Power of Half"

Leave it to Nick Kristof to devote his latest Sunday New York Times column to the remarkable story of the Salwen family that sold their large Atlanta home because 14-year-old Hannah Salwen would not stop pestering her parents to do something about the disparity in wealth between families like theirs and the homeless people she often saw on street corners. They then proceeded to purchase a much smaller house and to use the considerable proceeds from the sale of the larger home to contribute to a highly reputable charitable organization called the Hunger Project. In a new book called "The Power of Half," they don't just write about the satisfaction of giving, but also the direct benefits they themselves came to enjoy from living in a house that literally brought their 4-person family closer together. Kevin Salwen, the father, insisted that selling their home turned out to be "the most self-interested thing we have ever done." That it helped others at the same time was thrilling. All of this did not come easily, however. Some neighbors resented the Salwens for what appeared to be a kind nouveau sanctimoniousness, and at least one member of the family - their young son Joe - had a hard time adjusting to the smaller quarters.

In writing a book to share this story, the Salwens were certainly not advocating that everyone sell a home to make more money available for charity. Even Hannah calls this "kind of a ridiculous thing to do." But she adds this was a case where her family realized the house was much bigger than what they needed and that most people have something, "whether it's time, talent, or treasure" that is more than what they actually need. "Everyone does have their own half," she asserts using wise words that belie her years; "you just have to find it."

A while back I wrote a post about the ethicist Peter Singer and his call for people to give 6% of their income, before taxes, to charity. Karen and I wanted to do something to show our responsiveness to this call, to begin the process, so to speak, of finding our own half, but we also found Singer's standard, at least at this point, to be much too high. Instead of the $1000 a month that Singer would have us contribute, we settled on about half of this, a great deal more than we had been previously setting aside to help others, but still not enough. This money goes primarily to the New York City Food Bank, the Worldwide Fistula Fund, Developments in Literacy (to support educational projects in poor countries), the New York City Restoration Project (to plant a million trees in NYC), the Center for Arts Education, again in New York, and a group called BRAC, which supports women as agents of change in places like Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Finding ways to do more to help out others less fortunate is an ongoing project. But just about every time Mr. Kristof writes a column, you can feel yourself being re-inspired to go just a little bit further. We have found that when we opt to do one less cultural or entertainment event a month, we can set aside anywhere between 20 to 60 additional dollars a month for charity. We'll keep working at it, even though we remain far short of fully tapping into our own "power of half".


  1. Thanks for your continuing support of BRAC! You may also be interested in, where you put in the item you're committing not to buy as well as the cost, and click Go to see what that money could do for poor people around the world.

  2. Thanks you, Michelle. Much appreciated.


    I think this is very inspiring.

    You have always been a very generous person thank you fro all that you do for so many others.