Blog Post, Editor's Pick, Fundraising, Strategy & Implementation

What Mainstream America Doesn’t Know About the 1 Percent

June 2, 2016

So how do you really feel about the 1 percent? It’s become the norm to dislike them. Greedy and materialistic, they brag about their tax loopholes, build McMansions, leave a huge carbon footprint with their private planes, and give major gifts with strings attached (“The money’s yours…IF you put my name on the building.”).

The phrase ‘1 percent’ was coined in protest of the growing economic gap between the Wall Street wealthy and everyone else. The name caught on and now anyone with a high net worth is immediately tagged as obnoxious and selfish.

Yes, it’s true that some 1 percenters spend their money on themselves and don’t care about the other 99 percent. However, they’re vastly outnumbered by the many who use their wealth to improve lives. Many are familiar with the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, and the Buffett family. These boldface names give billions for worthwhile causes, both domestic and global, receiving plenty of well-deserved recognition.

But we don’t hear much about the smaller millionaires and ‘ordinary affluent’ who are not household names. This group comprises 99 percent of the 1 percent. Without fanfare, they donate money to charities, kickstart worthy causes, serve on boards, give free advice, and recruit friends and colleagues to help out as well. Countless organizations grow and prosper because of their generosity, which is recognized in their communities but doesn’t seem to register in the national discourse.

We offer examples of three people here in New Jersey who go that extra mile. The first is a math teacher at an inner-city independent school offering a promising future to the less fortunate. This teacher’s first career was on Wall Street, and it left him comfortable enough to do whatever he wanted. Instead of playing golf or buying his own tropical paradise, he embarked on a second career as a teacher and mentor at a fraction of his former salary, in a school where half the students are on need-based scholarships.

Fast-forward several years, and he’s now chair of the school’s math department and director of finance and operations. He’s also a generous benefactor, giving money for academic enrichment and scholarships. He gets his friends and former business colleagues from as far away as Hong Kong to donate money too, by telling them about this wonderful place that’s doing such great things for kids.

“My colleagues are happy to support us in a very big way—and yet we’re only a small part of their charitable work,” says this teacher who wishes to remain nameless.

Another New Jersey philanthropist, Ray Chambers, has made a huge impact in the public health arena. After learning about the scourge of malaria, he devoted his considerable energy to eradicating it, co-founding a nonprofit, Malaria No More. He also serves as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Malaria. Visibility, awareness, and funding for malaria have greatly increased during his tenure. More than a billion life-saving mosquito nets have been distributed worldwide, preventing more 6.2 million malaria-related deaths, mostly in children under 5 years of age. There has been a 60 percent decline in the rate of malaria deaths since 2000.

Chambers, who’s well known in New Jersey but maintains a low profile, is admittedly toward the top of the 1 percent pyramid. He is also the UN’s Special Envoy for Financing the Health Millennium Development Goals —the internationally agreed upon set of humanitarian targets for improving global health—and chairs The Global Health Alliance. He says, “I’m more convinced now than ever that the most direct route to happiness is in service to others.”

Our last case study is about EdPowerment Inc., an organization providing access to education and life skills training in the impoverished Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. The driving force behind EdPowerment is Moira Madonia, a mother of three grown children. After a long career in banking and finance, and later in teaching, she could’ve just sat back and relaxed. Instead she volunteered in Tanzania. She was so affected by the plight of people she encountered there that she founded EdPowerment to help improve their lives.

Programs span the educational spectrum, from the intellectually disabled (mostly autistic), to support of the Kilimahewa Centre offering educational services to students and villagers, to a sponsored student program for talented post-primary students. Each sponsored student is supported from secondary school to high school to college level study.

Madonia is proud of their success stories over what has been a seven-year journey. “I just received photos of one of our advanced students teaching the younger boys at the Kilimahewa Centre,” she says. “On my first trip in 2009, he was one of the displaced younger boys. Now he’s waiting to begin college. We have many more in college and even two in medical school. That’s what makes everything worth it.”

So when others begin bashing the 1 percent, let’s not pile on. Instead, give heartfelt thanks to those who are generous with their money and time and strive to make our world a better place.