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Book Club

The Power of Half

By Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt;; 2010; 242 pages

Last summer, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet issued a challenge that commentators said could change the face of philanthropy. They asked 400 of the richest Americans to commit half of their fortunes to their favorite causes via a “Giving Pledge.”

Nearly two years earlier, an idealistic teenager from Atlanta, GA, had a similar idea. Hannah and her father were driving down the road when she spotted something we have all seen—a homeless man standing beside the road holding a cardboard sign: HUNGRY, HOMELESS, PLEASE HELP. A second man was also in her field of vision. This one was driving a black Mercedes coupe.

The injustice she recognized in the juxtaposition of images of wealth and poverty outraged Hannah and set her family on a journey that strengthened them in unanticipated ways. Hannah and her father, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, chronicle their adventure in The Power of Half.

“Never accept things as they are when we have the chance to improve them” was an unspoken mantra to which the Salwens had always subscribed. A successful family, Kevin and Joan raised their children to give back in the ways that many families do: periodically volunteering at the local food bank, contributing to charity, participating in Habitat for Humanity projects. But in her youthful outrage about the inequities in the world, 14-year-old Hannah challenged her family to do more. And they agreed.

Together, Hannah, her teenage brother Joseph, mother Joan and father Kevin decided that they would sell their Atlanta dream home, valued at $1.6 million, move into an $800,000 home and contribute the difference to charity. Led by Joan, a business executive turned school teacher, the family embarked on a systematic process of researching global problems and the organizations addressing them. Experiencing alternating feelings of uncertainty and excitement, fear and empowerment, the family ultimately entrusted their donation to the Hunger Project, an organization battling global hunger through community development.

The Power of Half chronicles the Salwens’ process of downsizing and selecting a beneficiary for their generosity, but the book is not just about the money they gave away. It is primarily about what the family gained in the process.

In a chapter titled “The Treadmill,” Kevin Salwen describes how the family was happily living the American Dream of financial success and accumulation. But only when the family set out as a team to address the inequity that outraged Hannah did they realize the richness downsizing would bring to their lives. As Kevin Salwen told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof:

We essentially traded stuff for togetherness and connectedness…. This is the most self-interested thing we have ever done. I’m thrilled that we can help others. I’m blown away by how much it has helped us.


You can learn more about the Salwen family and see television interviews with them by visiting their website:



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Anonymous @ 2/18/2011 5:31:03 PM 
While I commend their efforts, moving into an $800,000 home is by no means a hardship. How many Americans would be happy to just have a roof over their head
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