The Salwen family decided that charity begins at home in a big way. They sold their home — a mansion in Atlanta — moved into a house worth half the value and donated the rest of the sales price to The Hunger Project and its work to end poverty in Ghana. Then they captured that simple but astonishing saga in The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back, a book that is challenging a growing number of readers to find their own ways to share what they have with others and at the same time draw closer as a family. Stewart Friedman, a Wharton management professor, founder of the Total Leadership community, and director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project, talked recently with Kevin Salwen and his daughter, Hannah, a high school junior, about their story of downsizing with a difference.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Stewart Friedman: You were the catalyst for your family’s decision, Hannah, when you were just 14. How did this come about?
Hannah Salwen: Well, one day I was riding in the car with my dad and we came to a stoplight. I looked to my left and saw a man holding up a sign that said, “Homeless. Please help.” I looked to my right and I saw a man in a Mercedes coupe. I kind of toggled back and forth between the haves and the have-nots of the situation and I said to my dad, “You know, dad, if that man in the Mercedes didn’t have such a nice car then the man over here — the homeless man — could have a meal.” My dad thought about it for a second and said, “Yeah, but, you know, if we didn’t have such a nice car, then that man could have a meal.” So that night when we went home and we talked to my mom and my brother, Joe, about it, my mom kind of in a fit of frustration said, “Well, what do you want to do? You want to sell the house?” And I said, “Yeah. That is what I want to do.” So that is what we did.
Friedman: Wow. Now that must have been a very difficult decision for you as a family to make. It really did transform your family in terms of your having to identify what matters most to you and where you are going to invest your resources. Tell us about the process of decision-making that led you to go through with this impulsive idea.
Kevin Salwen: We spend a lot of time in all of our lives thinking about how to invest money to make more money. But our family had never spent a lot of time thinking about how to invest money in order to make change in the world. So that was a process that my wife, Joan, essentially invented as we went forward. We would get together basically every Sunday over bagels and coffee and as a foursome — the two kids and the two adults — we would do research. We would go through discussions about a series of issues in the world — ranging from sexism to lack of education to lack of water to poverty — to start to understand our values first and figure out how we wanted to invest our money.
After nearly a year of discussion and research, we then voted — one person, one vote. And we decided we wanted to work in Africa with an organization that was very entrepreneurial and very grass roots. There were a whole series of criteria that our year of research took us to and The Hunger Project was the organization we decided to work with.
Friedman: One person, one vote is one of the more striking aspects of your story — your decision ultimately as parents to create a kind of collective decision-making where each of the four of you had an equal voice.
Kevin: That was crazy, wasn’t it? There is an irrationality to selling your house and giving away half of it. There is possibly something even more irrational about saying, “Okay, I’m going to let the hormonal teenagers have exactly the same say as the adults.” But, you know, my wife really insisted on this and it was fascinating because it’s probably the most important thing that we did. What she said was, “Look, who is selling their house? All four of us. Granted we bought the house, but the kids are giving up their rooms. They are giving up their backyard. They are moving just as we are.” To not make this a family project in which each family member has a say would be missing that point, so we completely flattened the hierarchy. One person, one vote. It was possibly the most empowering thing that ever happened for these kids.
Friedman: I’m sure that there might be some parents out there who are thinking that equal votes for children doesn’t quite square with our values and how we operate. I’m sure you must have met with some ambivalence in yourselves about moving to that model.
Kevin: I was nervous about it. When Joan first brought it up I actually didn’t love the idea, in part because I worried about how we would wall it off, not so much in this project but in other respects. How do I let my kids have a say over where we invest $800,000, which is what we ended up doing, and then turn around and say, “No, you can’t use the car.” Or “No, you have to do your homework before you go out with your friends.” I wondered where the boundary would be.
Friedman: So did it become harder to draw those limits?
Kevin: The amazing thing is that as we empowered the kids to make important decisions, they stepped up in other areas of their lives. And we essentially went from dial-up to broadband in the lines of communication. Now if Hannah is going to do something, or does do something, we talk about it. And I can trust her more to make better decisions about those things, like when she is going to drive the car. So I don’t even have to tell her most of the time. But when I do, she does respect that because she understands where I’m coming from because she knows me better and she knows Joan better.
Friedman: So you go through this process of making a decision ultimately to work with The Hunger Project and then travel to Ghana. Tell us what you encountered there and what you learned.
Hannah: When you go over to Ghana with The Hunger Project, you see that it does no hands-on work. They really believe in the Africans. They really believe that the people in these communities are the change agents of their own future. So when we went there, we did no hands-on work. I was expecting to build a well or maybe paint a church or build a school. It was shocking to me that what I was supposed to do was just to connect with the people there and to say, “I believe in you and this work that you are doing is going to change your life.” That’s really empowering for them, knowing that we stand behind them and that we are there for them no matter what.
We did go to the opening of a corn mill. My favorite part of the whole trip was seeing how excited these people were over this corn mill — because it meant that their kids, mainly girls, didn’t have to walk six miles round-trip to get their corn milled anymore, but could instead go to school and get an education. When I was leaving, my dad told me that the mill cost the same as Joe’s braces. At that moment, I knew that we were doing the right thing with our money and that we were really making a difference in these communities.
Kevin: Actually, if you think about it, we did the same thing at home that we were asked to do in Africa, which is to empower people to build their own futures. What is fascinating is the old saying that if you give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish he’ll eat for a lifetime. Well, The Hunger Project’s perspective is that the man already knows how to fish. The man just doesn’t have the resources to be able to fish. The man could probably teach you how to fish. And, by the way, if you really want success, the man almost always has to be a woman. The Hunger Project’s focus is very much on women’s empowerment.
Friedman: Why is that?
Kevin: Because if you give a man $10 or a man earns $10, the first thing he will do is smoke some cigarettes, drink a few Coca-Colas, maybe go out for a beer with his friends, and then come back with a few bucks. What the woman will do is make sure the school fees are paid first, primarily for her daughter because the son is usually already taken care of, and then make sure the household is taken care of, and then if there is something left over we’ll have a conversation.
Friedman: This is truly a remarkable example of giving and of sacrifice, but I know that you have said extremely eloquently in the book that the return to you personally and to your family was much greater than the cost. Could you say a bit more about that?
Kevin: To me, it is amazing how we set out to do a little bit of good in the world and that what it has done for our family has been completely transformative. At a time when our teenagers are supposed to be going in every direction, our family has never been closer. There is a trust among us and a connectedness that we never had before.
Hannah: People always ask me, “Do you miss having the cool house?” Of course, I do.
Friedman: Including the elevator to your bedroom?
Hannah: Exactly. It was so cool when people would come over and say, “Come on. Let’s go ride the elevator. It’s my birthday. Please. Please.” But when I think about it, giving up the house is helping 40,000 villagers in Ghana and has helped our family grow closer and have trust in one another and I would make that trade any day.
Kevin: But it’s really important to say that we don’t expect anybody else to sell their house.
Hannah: Especially in this tough economy. We understand that people don’t have the resources to do that all the time. But we do think that everyone has more than enough of something in their lives that they can afford to give away half — and that can be time. Maybe if you watch six hours of TV a week, maybe you cut that down to three hours and then you spend three hours at a children’s shelter. Or maybe you decide to take half of your vacation that you would normally take and use that unspent time and money to donate to the Ronald McDonald house or visit kids in a cancer clinic. It really is all about finding that one thing in your life — whether it’s time, talent or treasure — that you can afford to give away half of.
Kevin: The real key to it is if you can get together with your family or your dorm or your sorority or fraternity and do it collectively, then you get that power that comes from the interconnectedness of your intentional actions. That’s where the personal gain comes in.
Friedman: And you didn’t know that it was coming. That was sort of an unintended byproduct of this amazing impulse that you had to try to heal the broken world.
Kevin: It healed our world. At the beginning, I would have said, “Well, maybe we can help some people in the developing world build themselves a better future.” And we ended up doing that, but also building ourselves a better future.
Friedman: You must encounter a great deal of skepticism from people saying, “Well, you could afford to do that. What you have downsized to is a lot more than what most people have to begin with.” How do you respond to those kinds of criticisms and also the notion of overseas support as opposed to helping the many, many people here in America who could also benefit from philanthropic giving?
Hannah: Well, first of all, this doesn’t have to be about money at all. You don’t need a lot of money to do a half project. It is all about finding anything in your life that you can afford to give away half of, whether that is the clothes in your closet or the amount of time you do XYZ or how much money you have.
We had three main reasons for deciding to work overseas. The first reason is that we were already doing a lot of work locally. I work at Café 458, which is an Atlanta restaurant for homeless men. My dad is on the board of Habitat [for Humanity]. My brother loves the Humane Society. My mom and I work at the food bank. And we felt like we also wanted to work globally. But at the same time we did increase the amount of work we were doing locally.
The second reason is we wanted to work in a place where our money would really be effective. We wanted to watch the project progress, see how the villagers were benefiting from it and be able to see the improvements that have been made.
The third reason is there is no safety net in places like Ghana. They don’t have the luxury of having a soup kitchen down the street or a food pantry two blocks away. They don’t even have health care for tens of miles. So we wanted to work in a place where we were going to have the most impact.
Friedman: So how has this changed your outlook? Kevin, you were a Wall Street Journal editor and a successful writer and entrepreneur. This project now is probably taking up a good deal of your time and energy and opening up all kinds of new opportunities for you. How has your professional identity changed as a result of this transformative experience?
Kevin: What has happened in my professional life is that I have gone from being just a writer and an entrepreneur to being an evangelist because we have stumbled across something that has become very powerful for our family and for the world. So we want to tell that story. We want people to hear it because we think they can do great things with their own communities.
Friedman: How about you, Hannah?
Hannah: Well, I want to be a nurse. I was inspired by the nurses in Ghana and just seeing how much of an impact that they have on their communities. As for the future, I will always find half projects to do. So often in our lives we say, “I wish I could do more.” But there really is nothing to the word “more.” With half, it is so measurable. You can track it. I think that I will be doing half projects for my whole life.
Friedman: Could you give us an update on what is happening in Ghana with the early results of your contribution there?
Kevin: The way The Hunger Project works is they run a five-year program that helps villagers move from poverty to self-reliance. We are in year two with one set of villages and in year one with the other set. So the programs will be going on for the next three to four years and the villages are on the path to self-reliance. We will go back over there very soon and do all the things that we do when we are there: spend more time in the villages, meet with the people, support them — and dance very badly.