Giving a big chunk of it away

Marketplace Staff Jan 1, 2010

Giving a big chunk of it away

Marketplace Staff Jan 1, 2010


TESS VIGELAND: Happy New Year, everyone! And may 2010 be all the things last year wasn’t. Let’s resolve to find jobs for every worker who wants one. And how about giving homeowners in foreclosure a second chance? Maybe credit card companies could borrow a heart from the tinman, at 30 percent interest.

And how about this: How about all of us finding a way to give just a little more? More than half of all charities experienced a dip in donations over the last year. But there is at least one philanthropic group that’s maintaining its ranks. It’s called the Fifty Percent League. A club made up of people who believe it’s their moral obligation to give away as much of their money as they can.

Lisa Napoli looks at what inspires these folks to engage in “extreme giving.”

Lisa Napoli: Every weekend at her apartment in Oakland, Calif., Pilar Gonzalez makes 50 sandwiches and loads up the car with bottled water. Then, she hits the streets, in search of people to give them to.

Pilar Gonzales: Today I’ve put stickers on it that says, “Con amistad, suerte y fe” and that’s “With friendship, luck and faith.”

Gonzales hands out sandwiches to day laborers who stand on the streets waiting for work.

Gonzales: So my sandwich might be the only thing they eat that day.

Sometimes she slips $5 bills to strangers, or picks up the tab for people she sees at stores who need it. Helping people is in her DNA. She estimates that she gives away at least a quarter of what she earns every year, which last year was about $35,000.

Gonzales is a community activist by profession. She’s widowed, with a grown son. And she doesn’t understand why some people think it’s strange that a woman with a modest income chooses to give so much away.

Gonzales: They always say let rich people take care of it. My making less doesn’t get me off the hook, you know, of my responsibility to my fellow human beings.

Gonzales’s philosophy of giving is shared by Christopher Ellinger in Boston, even though his circumstances are vastly different. Thirty years ago, at the age of 23, Ellinger inherited $250,000.

Christopher Ellinger: If I had enough money to put down on a house and start work that I loved, and the rest I just wanted to give away, ’cause other people were in so much need.

That belief led him to dedicate his life to philanthropy, which included the creation of a club called the Fifty Percent League. It’s a roster of people who’ve pledged to give away significant portions of their earnings — some give more than half of their net worth.

Ellinger: We’re not saying that you should be giving away any particular amount of money. Fifty percent was just a totally arbitrary figure. We’re saying that it’s important to figure out what is enough for ourselves and how much can we give away in our lifetime that can make a difference.

There are 125 members of the Fifty Percent League. They include people from all walks of life, from a television actor to a community college professor.

Then there’s Bob Graham, who lives in San Francisco. He made millions of dollars in the farming and food processing businesses. His life was changed by a man he’d never met.

Bob Graham: I was reading the Wall Street Journal in my office one morning in 1983, and I read this account of a Chicago businessman who had been quite successful, and then, very unpredictably took up the cause of helping poor people.

Graham was so inspired by his story that he made a decision: He’d give away half of his money by the time he was 50.

Graham: Rather than accumulating more and more and more and more for what end I couldn’t see, I decided to unzip my purse and share it.

Now, 20 years later, he’s given away millions of dollars. His children were skeptical when he first shared the idea. But Graham and his wife involved the kids in the creation of a family foundation, and now they practice their philanthropy together. They all say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.

Graham: It was a great investment in the lives of other people, but it was also a great investment in my own life.

Graham says even people who aren’t well off can find a way to give.

Pilar Gonzales in Oakland is an example of that. As she drives around looking for recipients of her generosity, she says she shares her story in the hopes of inspiring others.

Gonzales: I’m not a Buffett, I’m not a Gates, but I feel wealthy in my own life.

Gonzales to men on the street: Agua and sandwich?

Man: Water bottle yeah, I’ll take a water bottle.

It took several hours of cruising around to distribute the food Gonzales had packed in her old Toyota Camry. But, she says, it’s the least she can do. She’ll be back out here again next weekend.

From Oakland, Calif., I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace Money.

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