Billionaires and The Power of Half

Billionaires Gates and Buffett may be following the Salwen's example.

In a major announcement today, billionaires like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison declared their plans to give away half of their fortunes to worthy causes.

Buffett and Gates have been contacting members of the exclusive club one-by-one, getting more than a 50 percent pledge rate. The Nebraska native explained that the goal was to create peer pressure on his fellow billionaires to follow the “giving pledge” members’ lead.

Thus far the tactic seems to have eluded the four members of the Walton family who are among the world’s 10 richest people.

Thanks to friend and former co-facilitator Chuck Meyers, I read this morning about an Atlanta family that made a similar gesture a couple of years ago.

Sparked by their daughter Hannah’s outrage at seeing a homeless person, the Salwen family pledged to sell their home and give away $800,000 to The Hunger Project, a non-profit that operates in African countries.

The Power of Half is the book primarily written by father Kevin Salwen, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, with chapter-end interludes by Hannah, the intrepid, passionate and idealistic daughter.

The book has appealing moments.  Salwen writes in a relatively straightforward how he and his wife had fallen into the habit of acquiring things and not living by closely held values as they continued to climb up the consuming hill.  Joseph and Hannah, their children, started to manifest this absence of a moral core through an entitled sense of disposable good-a sensibility the parents fed through trying to provide “the best” for their children.

Hannah’s distress at seeing the homeless is the catalyst that moves the Salwens onto a journey of shedding material items, contributing to causes, conceiving, designing and executing the project, and, in the process, empowering their children and strengthening their family.

In many ways the story is an inspirational one, and Salwen is an adequate storyteller at bringing the reader through the many difficult steps along the way.  These include some friends’ lack of excitement and outright disapproval, the close to nine months their 6,500 square feet house was on the market, and some initial trouble in setting specific goals and finding the right organization with which to partner.  There also are plenty of abusive comments on a web site after the family appears on national television.

Now, astute readers will do the math and figure out that half of 6,500 feet for four people is still a pretty whopping house for all but a tiny sliver of the planet’s population.  While the calls for Hannah to be raped and killed are obviously offensive and degrading, some of the comments do ask why the family chose to direct its resources to Africa rather than to communities far closer to home that also have tremendous.  The question of racial paternalism, one with a long history, hangs over the book, but is not convincingly addressed by Salwen, who does acknowledge that the history of Western giving is not a particularly impressive one.

If you can get past these challenges, though, the book, like the billionaires’ pledge, is a statement of action and youth engagement in a meaningful cause as well as a prod for others to assess what they are doing and to dig deeper within themselves to contribute more.  The Power of Half has its limits, but half-power in this area is far better than none.

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