A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Kristof, WuDunn)

I admit it; I was in need of some good news. So much of my non-fiction reading can be difficult, depressing. I wanted to believe the quotation that gave this book its title: “Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing – but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears” (Lu Xun). And Kristof and WuDunn deliver – not only with inspiring examples of success, but also honest assessments of failures. They argue in support of more thoughtful philanthropy and a larger role for businesses. They are in search of evidence to measure the impact of a donation, both on the recipient and on the giver.

I admit at times that I felt some provincialism. There are very few examples of philanthropies that benefit Americans. There is (and who can argue with this?) support for early childhood education programs and a remarkable group called Cure Violence. But is there nothing for those in between? Then there is the interesting and challenging example of a Ugandan school raising money for American students. Yes, our money can go further in other places and yes there are more support services in the US than other places, but there is plenty of need here, too. And giving, whatever the target, shouldn’t always be about the photo-op moment. New wells are great; new well that work five years later are even better.

I found some well-articulated and interesting insights. Why is it we think that in some professions that the nobility of the job should be enough? Why do well-paid and successful marketing executives for charities incur such resentment? In addition, I learned that there are other things you can donate aside from your time and / or money. Your expertise, for example, and that more people are doing that, and more companies are (for both self-serving and admirable reasons) are allowing their employees to do that. The notion that we are too attracted to being a founder of a charity resonated with me as well. There are those who raise money and funnel it to other groups who are already doing the work well.

Overall, this is a thoughtful and comprehensive look at the world of giving – from why we give to what impact our gift has. And though they are still not very adept at the long form, the writing here is better than it was in the equally essential Half the Sky. There’s more of a plan here – more structure, more coherence. Half the Sky read like a series of sometimes arbitrarily ordered articles; this is more of a book. And it is a very good one, to be sure.

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