What Would You Do If You Had a Million Dollars…to Give Away?

“I have listened to thousands of sermons on the urgent need to give.  I find myself wondering why it is that preachers never talk about how much fun it is to give….” Jon M. Huntsman Sr.

Every few months the country catches Powerball fever.  This happens when there hasn’t been a winner for a while and the jackpot rises to several hundred million dollars. 

At that point news coverage starts.  Each day without a winner leads to a higher jackpot and increased news coverage until it becomes one of the lead stories on both national and local news.  In January of 2016 the jackpot hit a record $1.586 billion before it was split by three “lucky” winners. 

During these periods of Powerball fever, “What would you do if you won?” conversations are a favorite pastime around water coolers and dinner table across America.  These conversations can be fun and can teach you a lot about people’s priorities.        

There is another game I like to play that is not nearly as popular but just as much fun.  I call it the “What would you do if you had a million dollars to give away?” game.  While most of us probably won’t ever reach that level of giving this game helps us identify the causes we are passionate about and can motivate us to do more to assist those causes than we are presently doing. 

The Power of Half

For the Salwen family of Atlanta, Georgia the “What would you do if you had a million dollars to give away?” game became a reality.  They wrote about their experience in one of my favorite books about giving called The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back, by Kevin and Hannah Salwen.   

The Salwen’s were admittedly blessed materially.  Both Kevin and Joan Salwen had high-paying, high-powered jobs and they had a $2 million dollar mansion in Atlanta that they both loved.  They also had an idealistic 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, who didn’t think her family was doing enough in the area of giving. 

To be fair to Mr. and Mrs. Salwen they were already doing quite a bit of charity work.  They were generous with both their time and their money in helping several charities.  In response to Hannah’s pestering they called a family meeting one night to discuss with Hannah and 12-year-old Joseph all of the charity work they were involved in.  They thought maybe Hannah just didn’t realize everything they were already doing.    

Hannah listened but was still not satisfied that they were doing enough, so she continued to push for a much higher level of giving.  Finally, Joan, mostly in jest, suggested they sell their house, buy another one for half as much, and give the difference away.  Hannah immediately embraced the idea.  She thought it was wonderful.  Joseph thought it was crazy and Kevin and Joan were apprehensive. 

They decided they would think more about but would only pursue it seriously if they all agreed.  After several more family meetings the decision was made to move forward with the plan and the Salwens put their house up for sale.   

Giving Away a Million Dollars

Giving away a million dollars has a way of focusing your attention.  The Salwens didn’t want to see their gift wasted.  They wanted to make sure it did as much good as possible for as many people as possible. 

There are two kinds of giving, emergency aid and development aid.  Emergency aid helps people recover from disasters.  Its goal is to get people back to where they were before disaster struck.  Development aid has the longer term goal of helping people permanently escape poverty by providing the infrastructure and education people need to be more productive.  The first decision the Salwens made was that they wanted to provide development aid, not emergency aid.    

Next, they had to decide what part of the world they wanted to focus their gift on.  The Salwens decided they wanted to put their money to use fighting poverty in Africa.  With those decisions made they started researching and interviewing aid organizations working in Africa.

The Salwens discovered that much of the aid given to Africa over the past 50 years had not accomplished much.  The reason was that outside organizations would decide what needed to be done, do the work themselves, and then leave.  The native Africans were, for the most part, left out of the process.  They did not receive the training and education they needed to become self-sufficient. 

The Salwens decided to give their money to an aid organization named The Hunger Project who operated in a different fashion.  The Hunger Project picks villages to help and then lets the villages decide what projects would be most beneficial.  The village then has to raise a percentage of the money needed for the project and provide almost all of the labor to complete the project.  The village than “owns” the results.  They are the experts and they can use and maintain the wells and other infrastructure when the aid workers move on.

Giving away a million dollars was an exhilarating, life-changing journey for the Salwens and reading their book motivated me to want to give more.  They learned a lot about the world, poverty, and the best methods for helping those in need.  They also learned a lot about each other and what they were capable of.  Most of all they became much closer as a family. 

At the end of their journey I don’t think they would argue with the observation from Jon M. Huntsman Sr. that giving is a lot of fun.  Perhaps if we focused more on that, instead of giving as an obligation, we would get more of it.

The Plan for My Million Dollar Give-Away

Like the Salwens I believe the best kind of giving helps people help themselves.  It gives them hope for a better future and the training and resources to get there.  It creates self-sufficiency, not dependency.

Education is one great way to do this.  One of my favorite charities is the Perpetual Education Fund, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 

This fund provides education loans to church members in developing nations.  These loans allow people to receive the training they need to increase their earning potential.  The fund is “perpetual” because all loans are given out of the fund’s earnings.  As loans are paid back and more money is donated additional people can be helped.  This program has helped thousands of people become self-sufficient and loan default rates are very low. 

I am also intrigued by micro-credit programs, as pioneered by Muhammad Yunnus in Bangladesh, in which people are given small loans and training that allows them to start or grow small businesses.  Grameen Bank, the bank Yunnus founded to make these loans, is built on the belief that “people have endless potential, and unleashing their creativity and initiative helps them end poverty.”  Each borrower is also placed in a group that provides support and mentorship.  That is a philosophy I believe in and can support wholeheartedly.

Finally, I am fascinated by a Nigerian program I heard about in a recent “Planet Money” episode (an NPR podcast) called “You Win!”  This is a program in which government grants, not loans, were given to small business owners wanting to grow or hopeful entrepreneurs with dreams and plans. 

Business ideas were submitted and the 6,000 best ideas were selected.  Classes were then offered to help those selected write formal business plans.  1,200 of the business plans were then chosen to receive grants.  The grants were equal to approximately $65,000 US dollars, which is about ten times more than the average Nigerian makes in a year.  In addition, there were no strings attached to the money.  The recipients could spend it however they wished. 

What was the result?  Was the money just wasted or was it put to use to start and grow businesses?  Three years later the World Bank did a study to find out and the results were surprising. 

They found that 7,000 jobs had been created at an average cost per job of $8,500, which in economic development terms is fantastic.  In fact, the results were so good that Chris Blattman, an economist at Columbia University, wrote a blog post about the program with the title, “Is This the Most Effective Development Program in History?”  One person that wouldn’t have been surprised by the results is Muhammad Yunnus.  He already knew that the recipients of the grants had endless potential and creativity just waiting to be unleashed.       

If I had a million dollars to give away I would put it to use unleashing human potential and creativity in American cities.  I like the sense of community, accountability, and the spirit of giving back promoted by both the Perpetual Education Fund and the micro-credit loans provided by Grameen Bank.  They are both, to a large degree, self-sustaining because recipients of the loans are expected to give back and assist others. 

On the other hand, I like the sense of trust exhibited in the “You Win!” program, and the fact that the grants are large enough to really make a difference.  Financial assistance at the right time for someone with both a dream and a plan can do wonders.    

For me the perfect charity would combine these attributes.  Entrepreneurs in struggling communities would be given education and mentors to help them come up with business plans.  The best plans would then be funded with loans.  The terms would be generous but payback would be expected.  In addition to paying off the loans recipients would be expected to become mentors for the next generation of recipients, creating a cycle of hope and unleashing the potential and creativity locked in these communities.

I am not sure if such an organization as the one I have described exists but I think it is badly needed.  If I had a million dollars to give away and couldn’t find someone already doing this I would create my own organization to accomplish it.  I can’t think of anything that would be more exciting, rewarding, or necessary than unleashing human potential and creativity in places where hope is currently hard to find. 

What would you do if you had a million dollars to give away?  Give it some thought and then ask everyone during your next family dinner.  The conversation will be interesting and you will probably hear some great ideas.  Then decide what you can do right now to get started.  While you may not have a million dollars to give away you can contribute something.                         

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