The Power of Half
|Subject||Consumption (economics) and consumer behavior; Moral and ethical aspects|
|Publisher||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
Audiobook on CD
|LC Class||HC110.C6 S255 2010|
The book describes how the Salwen family came to decide to sell its home, so that they could donate half the proceeds to charity. It discusses what the family went through in selling its home, donating half the sales price, and down-grading to a smaller home, and what they learned in the process. Finally, the book details the Salwens' process in choosing a charity partner that would fit their values and effect a lasting change, and how their actual actions supporting and empowering a village in Ghana to help themselves, differed from their original idea of "direct involvement". 
Hannah Salwen, 14 years old at the time, had a desire to do something to fix the world’s wrongs, and make a difference. To do that, she had to convince her family— her father Kevin (a magazine start-up founder and former Wall Street Journal journalist and editor), her mother Joan (a former management consultant partner at Accenture, who had turned to teaching English), and her younger brother Joseph.
The book details why and how the Salwen family decided to sell their home in 2006. The home was a luxurious, 6,500-square-foot (600-square-meter), 1912 historic dream-house in Ansley Park, in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. It had Corinthian columns, five bedrooms, eight fireplaces, four ornate bathrooms, and a private elevator to Hannah's bedroom.
The family down-graded, by replacing their home with a house that was half as expensive, and less than half the size. The Salwens donated the other half of the proceeds of the sale of their original home ($850,000) to a charity. They chose The Hunger Project, a charity that works to lessen the hunger of 30,000 rural villagers in over 30 villages in Ghana, and help the villagers move from poverty to self-reliance.
The book describes the egalitarian, one-person-one-vote, consensus-driven process that the parents and their two children used–over a period of time–to reach the decision to give away half the value of their home, and how they chose the charity from a number of non-profit organizations that they considered. It also describes the challenges that the family had to overcome in turning their family project into a reality, from economic ones to keeping the project a secret for a period of time so that they would not appear to be "freaks" to their friends.
Before they embarked on the project, though the family members dined together they were otherwise each busy with their own activities, and drifting apart. Hannah, for her part, opined that The Power of Half "is a relationships book, not really a giving book." She felt that while she made a small difference in the world, one great impact the project had was that during the process she and her family grew much more connected to each other.
The New York Times Book Review described the book by saying it details how the family "became happier with less—and urges others to do likewise." Kevin Salwen admitted: "We know that selling a house is goofy, and we recognize that most people can't do it." Asked if he was suggesting that other people follow suit, he answered: "We never encourage anybody to sell their house. That was just the thing that we had more than enough of. For others it may be time, or lattes, or iTunes downloads, or clothes in their closet. But everyone has more than enough of something.” He also clarified:
We want our kids to be idealistic, but we also say, ‘Let’s not go too nuts here'. We’re not Mother Teresa. 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. You’ll do a little bit of good for the world–and amazing things for your relationships.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised Hannah and the Salwens for the project, remarking: “We often say that young people must not let themselves be infected by the cynicism of their elders. Hannah inoculated her family with the vision to dream a different world, and the courage to help create it.”
On the other hand, as the media broadcast the story, some skeptics in the public found reasons to criticize them for "self-promotion", or for the amount of money they donated to charity. Some such critics attacked them for their choice of charity—finding fault with the family for having donated their money to help needy people in Africa, rather than in the United States.
Nor did everyone who heard about their effort understand the parents' egalitarian approach with their children, or the family's underlying philosophy. After the family was interviewed on television, while many of those who commented on the shows’ websites were complimentary, one wrote: “What kind of ass clown works his tail off, and busts his hump getting a decent education, only to listen to his kid suggest they give away the house?”
As Kevin Salwen noted: "Most people are supportive. And a few are very uncomfortable." Asked facetiously whether Hannah, still in high school, had "concocted the world's greatest college-admissions ploy", Kevin laughed and replied: "No. Anyway, wouldn’t it be the world’s most expensive?"
Reviewing it for The Washington Post, Lisa Bonos wrote that the book, "soaring in idealism, and yet grounded in realism, can show Americans of any means how best to give back." Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in The New York Times, said he found the project "crazy, impetuous, and utterly inspiring", and that:
It’s a book that, frankly, I’d be nervous about leaving around where my own teenage kids might find it. An impressionable child reads this, and the next thing you know your whole family is out on the street.
In the Los Angeles Times, Susan Salter Reynolds wrote: "You feel lighter reading this book, as if the heavy weight of house and car and appliances, the need to collect these things to feel safe as a family, are lifted and replaced by something that makes much more sense."
Lili Rosboch wrote for Bloomberg that it "is an inspiring book about the decision to trade objects for togetherness and the chance to help others." Writing in Grist, Jen Harper said that while she was somewhat skeptical before she started the book, the "compelling and well-written narrative left me both impressed and inspired," and that she found the book "endearing, funny, and uplifting". Courtney E. Martin wrote in The Daily Beast that the book "is highly accessible, sure to be devoured by Oprah devotees and disaffected finance guys hoping for a jolt of optimism." Bill Williams of The Boston Globe called it "spirited". Also writing for The Boston Globe, Joseph P. Kahn said "they’re my new role models" – after admitting: "I confess to being fixated on the opposite life formula. Call it the Power of Twice. As in, twice the leisure time, twice the income, twice the sleep. A man can dream, can’t he?"
Subsequent "Half projects"
Subsequently, a number of other people, many inspired by their example, committed to donating half of their money, or half of a possession or income, to charity. In an interview in Natural Home Magazine, Hannah noted that: “A number of my friends at Atlanta Girls School have started their own Half projects, including a couple who are donating half of their babysitting money to environmental causes. That’s pretty flattering."
Rev. Tess Baumberger, the Minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Massachusetts, read the book and announced that in December 2010 the Church would give away half of its Sunday collections to a local charity. Baumberger remarked: "What will we learn by practicing the power of half? What will this program teach our children and youth? I cannot wait to find out."
Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, said she was inspired by the Salwens' philanthropic efforts. On December 9, 2010, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook's CEO), and investor Warren Buffett signed a promise they called the "Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge", in which they promised to donate to charity at least half of their wealth over the course of time. After launching the Giving Pledge, the Gates invited the Salwens to Seattle for a photo shoot and conversation about The Power of Half.
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- Hoff, Valerie (April 2, 2010). "Family sells house, spends half to help hungry". The Arizona Republic. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- Larissa MacFarquhar (January 7, 2009). "A family makes a big donation to a village in Ghana". The New Yorker. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- Kellner, Jessica (September–October 2010). "The Power of Half: Natural Home Interviews Hannah Salwen". Natural Home Magazine. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- Lisa Bonos (April 30, 2010). "Review | 'The Power of Half': A family decide to downsize, give back". Miami Herald. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- Jen Halper (February 11, 2010). "I paid $50 for this book and all I got was this lousy feeling of hope and goodwill". Grist. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
- Tan, Caroline (September 24, 2010). "Author speaks about giving to charity". Yale Daily News. Retrieved March 17, 2011.
- Joseph P. Kahn (February 13, 2010). "One family’s commitment to helping others". The Boston Globe. Retrieved March 9, 2011.
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- The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back, by Hannah Salwen and Kevin Salwen
- Book excerpt in Parade, January 17, 2010
- Video by the Salwen children, describing the Power of Half project
- thepowerofhalf.com, website and blog
- The Power of Half Facebook page
- Video; University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service Speaker Series; The Power of Half, April 27, 2010