The Common Good
May 2008

Extreme Charity

by Julie Polter | May 2008

For members of the philanthropic group Bolder Giving, generosity pays.

You’ve heard of extreme makeovers, and extreme sports. But extreme charity? At least one group is encouraging people to go far beyond the typical levels of charitable giving, by challenging “the cultural norms and stereotypes about what is prudent and possible to give.”

Average charitable giving per household in 2005 was estimated to be 2.2 percent of disposable (after-tax) income, according to Giving USA, an annual compendium of philanthropy statistics. Some studies show that the lowest-income group (less than $20,000 annual income) gives proportionally more than that. At the other end of the spectrum, scholars with Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy found that households earning more than $300,000 give away about 4.4 percent of their income. But Anne and Christopher Ellinger, the founders of Bolder Giving, would like middle-class and wealthy Americans alike to aim higher. Much higher.

The Ellingers began their commitment to philanthropy early in their marriage, after Christopher received an unexpected inheritance at 21. They were motivated to create the Bolder Giving initiative in 2007 because, after years of work with other donors, they were struck by how rarely even the very wealthy reached their full potential for charitable gifts. This, even as overall societal wealth and economic inequality has grown and global needs in areas such as poverty and disease gain more coverage. The rare stories of people who did do extraordinary giving inspired the Ellingers deeply. They decided to gather and promote such stories to show people what is possible when it comes to making good use of assets or income.

So they created “The 50% League”—people who’ve agreed to share their stories at www.boldergiving.org about how they’ve given to charity at least 50 percent of their income for the past three years or half their assets at some point in their lives. The league includes heirs of small and large fortunes and older folks who are giving after achieving extraordinary financial success in their profession or business. But it also includes people such as Frank Rasmus, a retired insurance claim examiner who never made more than $45,000 a year, and Richard Semmler, a math professor at a Virginia community college.

MOTIVATION FOR THESE folks varies, but often includes desiring a simpler life less entangled in materialism, wanting to maximize their impact on an issue that’s important to them, or a sense of economic fairness. For several participants faith has played a key role in leading them to more generous giving and maintaining that commitment.

One example is Tom Hsieh, whose Bolder Giving story begins with disarming humility: “When I graduated from college, God pointed out to me: 1) He has a heart for the poor, and 2) I didn’t.” This revelation led Hsieh to work with an international missions and development group and to start the habit of giving away whatever money he didn’t need. Now in his mid-30s and an executive with a technology firm, Hsieh and his wife have committed to living at or below the national median income (which last year meant living on $38,000 and giving away the rest of his $200,000-plus salary). They live in the second-poorest neighborhood in Los Angeles County, a context that Hsieh notes makes giving easy, as the reality of the needs of the world are at their doorstep.

To support the power of the stories, Bolder Giving also offers presentations and publications to help people assess how much they might give and how to do so strategically. Being bolder doesn’t mean leaving bags of cash ons street corners, but rather should be paired with research and deep reflection about where to aim one’s giving. This is true whether you have millions or are just comfortably middle class. And likewise, even if current circumstances make giving 5 percent of your income seem unimaginable—never mind 50 percent—dreaming of giving more isn’t just for the wealthy. After all, according to Jesus, the widow with her mite was the boldest giver on the block.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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