Author and Philanthropist Wendy Smith

Who she is: “I’m an idealist,” admits Wendy Smith, author of “Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World,” whose goal is to change the way Americans think about charitable giving.

What she does: Her 345-page book, published last year by Hyperion, cuts through the hyperbolic language found in fundraising letters and focuses on the facts that will empower readers to make good philanthropic decisions.

Why she does it: “It’s not the size of the contribution that matters,” explains Smith, who for more than two decades has worked in the nonprofit world. “What matters are the outcomes your giving produces.”


By Hope Katz Gibbs

“When wealthy folks want to make sustainable charitable donations, they often turn to professional donor advisers who help them define their philanthropic interests and the causes or organizations that match those interests,” realizes author and philanthropic advisor Wendy Smith.

“But every donor deserves access to information that maximizes the meaning and effectiveness or his or her donations. That is where this book and I come in.”

Smith divides her book into six parts. In part one, “How and why we give,” she begins by discussing the difference between “Doers and Donors.”

“The vast majority of us will not quit our jobs, leave our careers, and risk all of our large or small fortunes to make a difference,” she explains. “It’s not that we’re not caring. Far from it! We would love to help make the world a better place. It’s simply that we aren’t all called to incubate and grow a new enterprise. But we can partner with those who do by contributing to their efforts financially.”

The four big secrets about giving

In chapter two of the book, Smith quotes Aristotle, who said: “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how large, and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

Here’s what she wants you to know:

  • 1. Americans are extraordinary givers. In 2007, Americans gave $229 billion to charities — more than the GDP of 136 of 180 countries around the world.
  • 2. Affordable donations do make a difference. In fact, $10 treats malaria, and dimes (which became the March of Dimes) helped beat polio.
  • 3. Giving changes you as well as the world. Brain researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke put donors and non-donors in an MRI machine, and found when the givers talked about their donations, the reward / feel-good areas of the brain lit up. “Many people think they should not do anything for others unless it has a material benefit for themselves,” says Dr. Jorge Moll, a member of the research team. “But our brains show that you profit emotionally from doing so. Something in our brains shaped by evolution allows us to feel joy when we do good things. It’s a biological force.”
  • 4. The Millennium Project. There is much to learn from the research being done by the global thinkers at the United Nations University, which was founded in 1996. Today, they assess the potential for better understanding how humanity could work together to improve the human condition. Learn more here:

How to make a difference: hunger, health, and education

After making effective arguments for giving in these first two sections, Smith spends the remainder of the book helping readers understand the needs that small and large charities around the world are working to meet.

She outlines dozens of organizations helping to end hunger, improve health care, and educate the masses. Some include the Mobile C.A.R.E. Foundation, which provides free and comprehensive asthma care to children and their families in Chicago’s under-served communities, and World Bicycle Relief, which provided transportation needed to reconnect communication and commerce after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004.

Giving, lending, and clicking for good

In the final section, part six, Smith offers a handful of solutions to consider — including Chapter 14, which provides “16 more ways to make waves.”

Here, she lists more than a dozen organization that are making a difference, including The Hunger Project, Partners in Health,, and First Book.

Perhaps most importantly, in the appendix she provides an outline of a useful resource: A Charity Navigator’s Approach to Evaluating Nonprofit Financial Health.

Wendy Smith: On why she gives

My book explains how giving changes donors in positive ways just as it can change the world. Giving changed me when I was just 7 years old.

In honor of making my First Communion, my parents began sponsoring a little girl who lived in Cambodia. We put a picture of her on an end table in our family room. I looked at that picture so many times and so closely that I can still see it perfectly in my mind. She was my age, in 1st grade, wearing a white blouse that was part of her school uniform.

I noticed that the collar of her blouse was frayed and just a little bit dirty or stained, but it looked perfectly starched, as though great care had gone into making that blouse as presentable as possible. She had a beautiful unsmiling face with dark eyes and black hair cut in a traditional bob. I tried to imagine what her life was like. My family moved from Ohio to Michigan when I was in 5th grade, and I don’t remember her picture being on an end table in that house. I don’t remember her being part of our lives after that move.

What I’ve learned since is that the Khmer Rouge had taken siege of Cambodia and aid organizations were forced to leave. World Vision, which had a child sponsorship program in Cambodia at that time, was forced out in 1975.

I wonder now what happened to that little girl. Had she become a refugee as so many Cambodians did? My brother is married to a Cambodian woman whose family fled the Khmer Rouge on foot to a refugee camp in Thailand, but not before her father was killed and her uncle died of starvation, and not before she spent time in a child labor camp where she was separated from her family, worked in fields from dawn to dusk, and participated in “re-education” — a common practice of the Khmer Rouge, which believed that the notion of “family” was contrary to the good of the state.

Was this the fate of the little girl in the picture? Or, had my family’s sponsorship somehow helped spare her? My parents sent me a powerful message when I was 7: We are fortunate. Others are much less fortunate. We can help make their lives better, so we should do what we can. That message and the little girl in that picture have influenced my entire life.

Learn more here: