The man I was interviewing told me I was asking the wrong question. When I asked Kevin Salwen in a phone interview how to raise children who are willing to be enormously generous, he told me I had the question backwards.
“You mean, I should be asking how kids raise parents to do this?” I asked.
“Right,” he answered.
The this I was referring to was his family’s decision to sell their $2 million Atlanta home, downsize to one half its size, and donate half of the proceeds from the house to charity. Kevin, his wife Joan, and their children Hannah, 17, and Joseph, 14, came to this crazy, generous conclusion at the behest of Hannah when she was just 14.
“Really,” I said, “There’s got to be something you instilled in them when they were younger …”
And, in fact, Kevin went on to describe how he and his wife had always recognized that they needed to help their children understand that they are part of a bigger world. And that means they have a responsibility to their community, however they choose to define it.
Even before they chose to sell their home, the Salwen family regularly did volunteer work at least once a month at places like the Atlanta Community Food Bank. They also gave money to charities each year, but the children had no say where the money went.
Still, Kevin believes that generosity is not all nurture. A person’s nature plays into their willingness to give, and his daughter Hannah has that giving nature. Her nature kicked into high gear when they were stopped at a red light three years ago with a Mercedes on one side and a homeless man on the other. Hannah remarked that if the person didn’t own the expensive Mercedes, the homeless man could have a meal. That led to her fervent request that her family do more to help others.
Her mother suggested they sell their house, and in a moment when most families might have ended the discussion because of the ridiculousness of it all, the Salwens opened their minds and hearts to the possibilities. Eventually, they decided to go for it.
Most people are impressed when they learn what the Salwens did with $800,000, half of the proceeds from the sale of their home. They donated the money through New York City-based The Hunger Project to more than two dozen villages in Ghana. Their donation will help people who have lived on less than $1.25 a day become self-sustaining.
What the Salwens did is impressive; however, what has happened to them as a family is equally as impressive. Their project transformed the family in what Kevin says is “a magical way.” Without intending to, the family “traded stuff for a deeper level of connectedness, and trust, and togetherness.” What would seem like a difficult step to most people, downsizing from a luxurious home and giving away $800,000, is “just certainly an amazingly easy deal” when you realize what the family gained.
When they decided to sell their home, Kevin and Joan chose to make decisions using the “one-person, one-vote” method. They gave Hannah and Joseph as much decision-making power as the adults. When the children found that their thoughts, opinions and ideas were given equal weight alongside of their parent’s, they quickly realized that they “better darn well think them through before they spoke.” Once they knew that their judgment really mattered, they began to trust that their parents were listening when they spoke.
The teens took their decision-making powers seriously. For one year, they worked side by side with their parents, researching and deciding how to invest the money to be donated. What Kevin saw growing out of this process was fascinating. The trust that Hannah and Joseph had in their parents, because Kevin and Joan genuinely listened to them, started spilling over into other areas. The teens began to talk to their parents about all sorts of things, things that had nothing to do with their charity project, with a deeper trust.
Kevin believes that the process of digging into each of their deeper values as they went though the process of choosing where to invest the money opened lines of communication among the family that had never been there before. The teens saw their parents as more than just parents, and Kevin and Joan saw their children for who they really were at their core.
What the Salwens got out of their project was so much more than bragging rights for helping transform the lives of people in Ghana. Their own lives were transformed in ways unexpected, in ways that made $800,000 seem like a small price to pay for what they got in return.
The family realized that there was a book to be written about the transformative effect of their project. The Power of Half was written by Kevin and Hannah to “help inspire other people to just take a good look at their lives and recognize what they have more than enough of” so that they can get out in the world to help others and themselves the way the Salwen family did.
They don’t believe others need to sell their house. They want others to look at what is possible for them. “The book,” Kevin says, “provides a roadmap for how people can make that decision of what they have more than enough of” and figure out what their half is. They can get together with their family or their community and decide how they can be out there “doing a little bit of good in the world.”
“It’s not the size of the project. It’s not the house. It’s absolutely all about just figuring out what you have more than enough of. It doesn’t have to cost a dime.”
The Salwens aren’t done with their giving yet. One dollar from each copy of The Power of Half will be donated to Rebuilding Together, an organization that helps America’s low-income homeowners get needed home repairs. That could end up being a sizable donation. Last week the book ranked around 4,800 on Amazon’s book list. After stories aired on both the CBS Sunday Morning (see video below) and ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, and a story in the New York Times, the book now ranks somewhere near 350.