John-Paul Flintoff

Daddy, I want to help the poor – let’s sell the house

Kevin Salwen obviously wasn’t thinking. He opened his mouth, said the first thing that popped into his head and brought his family’s hitherto comfortable existence to an end.

It happened in 2006. Salwen was driving home with his 14-year-old daughter Hannah and stopped at a certain traffic light.

“There’s a spot on the road we pass,” says Hannah, now 17. “And there are all these homeless people holding up signs asking for food. That day, we pulled up there and right in front was a Mercedes. I looked at the guy in the Mercedes and said, ‘Dad, if that guy didn’t have such a nice car, the hungry guy over there could have a meal’.”

To which her father Kevin replied: “But if we had a less nice car he could have a meal.”

That incautious remark, the kind that parents make all the time, was to linger in Hannah’s mind. What really mattered to her, she told her parents — and her younger brother Joseph — that evening was to do something. “I didn’t want to be in a family that just sat around saying, ‘I wish’,” she recalls. “I wanted to get out there and make a difference.”

Kevin, a former journalist on The Wall Street Journal, and his wife Joan, a management consultant, pointed out that they already did a lot: they volunteered at a food bank; they gave money to charity; they did more than many families in their situation.

Sensing that Hannah was not satisfied, Joan asked: “What do you want to do, sell the house?” And Hannah said: “Yeah! That is exactly what I want to do.”

To their credit — or not, the choice is yours — Kevin and Joan took Hannah seriously. Month after month the family held meetings and brainstormed. They started by asking the really big questions, such as whether it was best to help a lot of people a little, or a few people a lot. The discussions were rewarding in themselves, Kevin says: “We started to understand each other’s values. I learnt what was important to the kids and they learnt what was important to us.”

In due course the Salwens sold their comfortable house in Atlanta, Georgia, with working lift, four ornate bathrooms and vast kitchen, bought a new one less than half the size, with a shared drive and hanky-sized garden, and gave away the rest of their money — about $800,000 (£527,000 at today’s exchange rates) — to a charity tackling hunger in Africa.

Now the family have told their story in a book, The Power of Half, amid considerable controversy in the United States. Many readers have been inspired by their example to try something similar. Others have described the Salwens as self-aggrandising and anti-American because they gave the money to Africans instead of their poorer compatriots.

Accentuating the positive, Joseph, 15, says: “We’re showing that sharing can mean a better life for others.”

Telling their story has been difficult. How to avoid putting indirect pressure on others to make the same kind of sacrifice? And if they said people shouldn’t try to copy them, would the Salwens sound as though they thought they were better than the rest of us?

“We’re getting attention because our gesture is daunting to people,” says Kevin, adding ruefully: “The kids have thicker skins now.”

They’re not saints, he insists: “We’re not taking a vow of poverty or giving away half of everything we own. We gave away half of one thing, which happened to be our house. Everybody can give away half of one thing and put it to use.”

By comparison with the Salwens, the philanthropic efforts of British families may appear less impressive. But with the recession causing a decline in charitable giving, it seems that young people are proving the most resilient philanthropists.

“One of the really exciting things we are seeing right across the world,” says Salvatore LaSpada, of the Institute for Philanthropy, “is a new generation of socially committed young people who, perhaps because of TV and the internet, are more sensitive to social problems than any generation before them.” Indeed, thousands in Britain take part in competitions designed to encourage youthful good works. One such scheme is the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI). The founder, Julie Toskan-Casale, explains how it works: “We ask teenagers to find an issue in their community … and an organisation to address the issue.”

The team that makes the best case for its chosen cause is given £3,000 to distribute among charities working to resolve the issue. Among those funding the YPI is a charitable foundation run by a British family whose children get equal votes on a family “board” — and seem to hold as much sway as in the Salwen household. Clare Mathias set up the foundation to teach her daughters about less privileged people around the world. Since then, Thea, Abby and Sassy have embraced philanthropy with gusto, travelling to India to hang out with street kids and prostitutes.

Perhaps because Mathias has not — yet — been persuaded to sell the family home, she is delighted by her daughters’ enthusiasm. “This helps us to avoid the ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’ speech,” she says. “Because they obviously do know exactly how lucky we are.”

887 words. First published 22 March 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.

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