Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World

Bridges matter. More than halfway through Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World, author Wendy Smith writes about the day in 2001 when Ken Frantz was glancing through a copy of National Geographic. Frantz saw a photograph of a man hanging on a rope, desperately trying to get to the other side of a bridge that had no midsection. The photograph, taken on the Nile, made clear how critical it is for people to be able to get from one side of a river to the other. What we think of as a matter of convenience is actually a matter of life and death, especially when a wounded person is on one side of a river and medical attention is on the other. Civic infrastructure, in other words, is a basic necessity of civilization — and providing bridges can be a powerful and transcendent force for good.

Ken Frantz and his brother, Forrest, both saw the photograph — and the two eventually teamed up to form Bridges to Prosperity. But while the brothers were eager to bring their engineering know-how to remote rural communities, they knew a more lasting legacy would be to actually teach people in those communities how to build the cable-suspended footbridges that are the centerpiece of the program. This inspiring story is just one of many in a book that has, at its heart, a critical lesson for us all: small contributions are the backbone of philanthropy, especially in the United States.

Smith reports that in response to the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, American foundations, corporations, and citizens gave $3.6 billion to tsunami relief efforts, significantly more than the $841 million provided by the federal government. But despite "the highly publicized million-dollar gifts from corporations and celebrities," Smith writes, "most of the giving to [those] efforts came from gifts of less than $50 made by millions of Americans across the country." She then presents a fascinating picture of an America where there is lots of talk about government largesse but the actual portion of the federal budget set aside for humanitarian and economic aid to other nations is relatively tiny, about 1.6 percent of the entire discretionary budget. Indeed, Americans, when asked, wildly overestimate the amount of money their government gives in international aid. The big dollars come from average givers, who may not fully realize how much their generosity actually buys.

That's where Smith comes in. She's out to show how little donations add up and, to that end, presents specific and often stunning data that underscore how small, everyday donations can save lives. At Feeding America, a $50 contribution means eight hundred meals for a child in need. At the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, $3 from each person living in the world's wealthiest nations could fund treatment for everyone in the world who has TB. At World Bicycle Relief, the cost of a life-altering bicycle is $34 a year.

Smith knows her stuff. She has a background in both operating nonprofit programs and in fundraising for them. With twenty years of experience in the sector, she's also able to make what might have been dry material come alive, especially when writing about the free-thinking entrepreneurs whose work seems to excite her most.

Her book aims for the mainstream and deserves a spot on Oprah's night table. Indeed, Winfrey has more than a little in common with Smith, a Chicago-based philanthropy expert who wants to leave a better world and planet to her children. "Think of me," Smith says in her introduction, "as your personal giving adviser and this book as a guide to changing the world from your kitchen table armed only with a checkbook and a pen."

This, then, is the book Smith set out to write: an easily digested but extensive tour of charities, big and small, making a difference around the planet. At more than three hundred pages, the book can feel a bit like a laundry list in places, but it's well organized — Smith breaks things down into major issue areas such as hunger, health, education, and infrastructure, tools and technology — making it easy for readers to pick and choose the causes and organizations they want to learn more about.

Still, it can be a little much. The book includes not only Smith's own narrative, but first-person reports from the front, whether from charity spokespersons or donors. The text also is interrupted by occasional charts, quotations introducing each chapter (Pearl Bailey and Aristotle both make the cut) and way too many "Did You Know?" information bites. There are repetitions, too, as when she tells us three times over the course of six pages that one in six people on the planet lack access to clean water. Then again, it's not a bad factoid to want to drill into the American consciousness.

A former preschool teacher, Smith obviously is someone who has paid her dues and wants to share what she has learned about the often difficult work of improving the lives of others. With Give a Little, she has given us all a pretty big gift.

Christopher Moore
New York, New York