August 23rd, 2012
Anne and Christopher Ellinger
August 23rd, 2012
The half-million dollar inheritance we gave away in the mid 1980’s turned out to be a shockingly good investment: it has helped to unleash over $200 billion in charitable giving. How’s that for leverage! Of course it was more than money…
We were young, idealistic community organizers, living in a poor section of Philadelphia on $6,000 a year, when Christopher’s grandmother left us an unexpected inheritance. We were shocked. Thrilled. And confused how to use the money, given our deep concerns about the state of the world, from horrible injustices to the worsening environmental problems. One thing was clear: the money we inherited was miniscule compared to the needs of the world.
What if instead of simply giving whatever we didn’t personally need, we used our money and energy to help unleash the giving of others? If a critical mass of people -- across all social classes -- stepped forward to contribute the most they could of their time, talents, and treasure, could that make a critical difference? This was our fierce hope.
We coined the term “donor organizing” to explain to our fellow social justice activists why we were trying to empower other inheritors. “It’s not fundraising,“ we’d explain. “It’s just like other identity-based organizing, only with people who have financial surplus.” Our colleagues would snort, “Aren’t affluent people already too powerful?” and we’d reply, “Not most of the ones we know. Many feel isolated and hopeless about making the world better. If they felt more powerful, they’d be doing much more.”
In addition to igniting the giving of others, we wanted to give boldly ourselves – but wisely. Being a cautious kind of guy, Christopher decided to first learn from others’ mistakes. He sought out and interviewed over 40 people who had given large chunks of their financial principal to support causes they cared about. Amazingly, not one person regretted it. (You can read their stories in our book We Gave Away A Fortune.) We engaged a planner to help us make a lifetime financial plan, and saw how, given our earnings and lifestyle, the $250,000 we already had from Grandma would be sufficient for our needs. As we became more confident in financial management, we quickly moved the money into socially responsible investments.
With all that under his belt, Christopher got up the courage to talk with his beloved but fiscally conservative grandfather about his will. “Grandpa, we really do have enough already. It would give us great satisfaction to give that money away instead of receiving it personally.”
To our amazement, in an act of remarkable trust, Grandpa changed his will the day before he died. The money Grandpa would have left us -- a second inheritance -- went directly into “The Chutzpah Fund” a donor-advised account we set up at a community foundation. There, the two of us, in equal decision-making with some colleagues we respected, had the joy of funding three areas we judged as vital and underfunded: donor organizing, arts for social change, and international nonviolence training.
We used the final grant to hire a staff person to start the nonprofit, More Than Money, which, with its quarterly journal, coaching, and conferences, became our life’s work for a dozen years. Bolder Giving , with its website featuring 100+ stories of outrageously generous givers, evolved from this work. In 2010 we were astonished to learn that our stories of Bold Givers helped to inspire the billionaires’ Giving Pledge.
With More Than Money, we had lived through an all-too typical founder’s fiasco: raising $3M in pledges to grow the organization, then getting booted out, and then watching the organization flounder and fold. So it was scary to consider passing it to others’ leadership. But when Bolder Giving received a surprise grant from the Gates Foundation in 2010, we found in Jason Franklin the perfect executive director, with the talent and integrity to grow it to fuller capacity. After a gradual two-year transition, we felt secure enough about the organization to let go and step into the next chapter of our lives.
Years earlier, we had fallen in love with a powerful form of improvisational performance called Playback Theatre, which we brought into More Than Money conferences to deepen the sharing of stories and empathy among participants. We were excited to form our own Playback troupe, True Story Theater, and adored acting in Playback performances locally in Boston and around the country. Now, with Bolder Giving in good hands –and our son all grown and performing on cruise ships as an acrobat -- we could pour ourselves into performing and promoting Playback Theatre as an extraordinary, under-recognized social change art form.
Above our front porch, where we often sit with our coffee and computers overlooking a riotous flower garden, is a sign that reads, “Wildest Dreams.” Some passers-by think it announces a Bed &Breakfast or a rock band, but really it’s an invitation or invocation: “Go do it: Live your dreams!” Ahh, we’re ready to open the next door and follow our own advice.
More on Ann Ellinger:
Anne shared her story in a new book - Class Lives: Stories from Across Our Economic Divides. Class Lives is an anthology of narratives dramatizing the lived experience of class in America.
Read an excerpt of Anne’s story "A Privileged Path in a Class-Shattered World".