Giving and receiving

Salwen family’s commitment to help others proved rewarding to them, and inspiring to others

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

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I’m not sure my family could sit down and agree on anything, except maybe “Modern Family’’ being the greatest TV comedy since “The Simpsons’’ and the Red Sox lineup needing another power bat.

Sell our house and donate half the proceeds to charity? Did you fall and hit your head, Dad? Write a six-figure check to build community centers in rural Ghana? Nice thought, dear, but the car needs new brake linings. Maybe next millennium.

Before getting to the book “The Power of Half’’ and the family behind it, 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?

Here’s what the Salwen family - Kevin, Joan, and their two teenagers, Hannah and Joseph - dreamed up four years ago: a bold commitment to making a difference in the world. Hannah, now 17, was the driving force behind the Salwens agreeing to sell their $2 million Atlanta house, move into one half its size, and dedicate $800,000 in anticipated profits to the Hunger Project, an international relief agency. Kevin, a former Wall Street Journal reporter-editor, and Joan, a corporate executive-turned-schoolteacher, didn’t merely greenlight the project. They granted each child a full vote in all decision making. Constantly reexamining their own methods and motives, they asked themselves two nagging questions: How? And, how much?

“Setting out to be selfless became the most self-interested thing we ever did,’’ writes Kevin. Why half? “Because it’s measurable,’’ he notes, “a metric to live with.’’ But not easily.

“We didn’t do a good job at first explaining ourselves,’’ Kevin Salwen acknowledges, on the phone from New York this week. As their house-sale plan became widely publicized, “It was both challenging and off-putting to some,’’ he says. “Look, we all hurtle through our lives with this unchecked momentum. In our case, a 13-year-old girl said, ‘Stop.’ We did, recognizing she was right. For lots of people, though, it’s more comfortable to keep doing what they’ve been doing.’’

Radically downsizing isn’t something the Salwens expect of others, especially in tough economic times. They’re acutely aware, too, that many Americans are desperately poor, one reason they’ve ramped up their support for local organizations like Habitat for Humanity. “We’re getting attention because our gesture is daunting to people, and maybe we shake some out of their complacency,’’ Kevin continues. But their larger message isn’t about making extravagant, six-figure sacrifices. It’s about how parting with some of what we might have in abundance can deeply enrich both donor and donee.

The where, how, and why behind the Salwens’ story can be found in their book and on their website ( What’s only touched upon is the blowback they’ve encountered, on the Internet and elsewhere. Kevin laughs when asked, tongue in cheek, if Hannah, a high-school junior, had actually concocted the world’s greatest college-admissions ploy. “No,’’ he replies, chuckling. “Anyway, wouldn’t it be the world’s most expensive?’’

More seriously, he says the snarky comments ricocheting around the blogosphere - the Sawlens have been pegged as everything from smarmy self-aggrandizers to America-hating socialists - have stung. “The kids definitely have thicker skins now,’’ he says. “But we’ve also been to Africa. We’ve spent time in these villages. We understand the difference we’re making in peoples’ lives. We know that 10 years from now these kids will have better futures. If some want to say we’re grandstanding, so be it.’’

The Salwens head back to Ghana in July to check on their five-year project commitment. Meanwhile, they’re not lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize. “We want our kids to be idealistic, but we also say, ‘Let’s not go too nuts here,’ ’’ he says. “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.’’

Along with the cast of “Modern Family,’’ they’re my new role models.

Kevin and Hannah Salwen will speak at the Wellesley Free Library tomorrow and Monday at the Brookline Booksmith.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at