Saturday, December 16, 2006

My Conversion to Philanthropy

As I've been speaking with people about Riches For Good - both the blog and the concept - conversation has often touched upon the book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. Many people have asked why I feel so passionate about Riches For Good; Mountains Beyond Mountains is what ultimately called me to action, making me realize that it is possible to make a huge impact for others who are less fortunate than I. Although I intended this post to be a book review about Mountains..., instead I've turned it into a discussion of my gradual conversion to philanthropy.

As an elementary student and junior high student, I was concerned that several of my friends seemed to have more luxury items than I did. Don't get me wrong, all of my needs were met, and most of my wants were met as well, but I didn't think it was fair that my friends got the most expensive Air Jordan basketball shoes and had their own family cabins, when I got the slightly less expensive Nike Air basketball shoes and got to spend only one or two weeks at a cabin each year. It was anything but a rough life. When I complained to my mother, she would talk about the fact that we had six children in our family, and my parents believed strongly in the Biblical principal of tithing, whereas none of my rich friends' families had six children, and my mother was uncertain whether they paid 10% of their income to God. She was not being self-righteous or judgmental of others; she simply explained that different people spend money different ways. I didn't appreciate the "excuse" at the time.

I was involved in a number of volunteer organizations in high school, but frankly, I think the only two reasons for my involvement were that (1) I was thinking about resume building to make myself look like a good candidate for college, and (2) several of my friends were involved in the organizations, thus making it a social event for me to join. I still had a baditude about inconveniencing myself or foregoing consumption for the benefit of others.

After one year at college, I took a two-year hiatus to serve as a full-time volunteer missionary in Thailand. I credit those two years as a major turning point for me. I was impressed that the Thai people were generally happy, kind, generous people despite fewer material goods than I was accustomed to in the United States. The poorest people were generally the most likely to invite us to stop to chat, eat some tasty food, and quench our thirst. I developed a firm belief that people all over the world are children of the same God, and therefore we truly are brothers and sisters.

Within 1-1/2 years of returning home from Thailand, I was married to Danna Ockey, an idealist if there ever was one. She believed (and still believes) that her talents were given to her by God for the benefit of others. She continues to be an inspiration and motivating factor behind my increasing passion to help others.

My first job out of college with Ford Motor Company was a great learning opportunity from a business perspective. However, it was a major disappointment in terms of making me feel that I was contributing to the betterment of the world. From very early on in my career, I began researching career paths that would be more meaningful to me. I considered health care administration, and I even considered going to medical school, but when I came across the medical devices industry I thought it was the perfect match of using my business skills, innovating, striving for excellence, giving back to the community, and making a good wage for my efforts.

I returned to school for my MBA at the University of Michigan (Ross School of Business), in Ann Arbor. One school project afforded me the opportunity to try out the medical devices industry by teaming with two other students to consult for a startup company in early stage development of a bioartificial pancreas. The project confirmed to me that I truly am passionate about the application of technology in the medical devices industry. However, my favorite MBA project ended up being with a delicatessen named Zingerman's. I realized as a result of my Zingerman's experience that the healthcare industry was not the only industry in which I could do work that's meaningful to me. Zingerman's donates 10% of its profits to charity, and the company's founders also started Food Gatherers, one of the top-rated charities according to Charity Navigator. I could be very content working with an organization such as Zingerman's.

Nevertheless, upon graduation from business school, I accepted a job with Medtronic, a medical technology company whose mission is to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life. I enjoy my work there and have tremendously talented and generous co-workers. In addition to developing and marketing products that help improve peoples' lives, the company is good at giving back to the community. For example, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, Medtronic launched a new program that allows workers up to one week of paid leave to respond to a major disaster. Our local division also has an annual food drive, which I'll probably blog about later this week.

My life changed in early 2006, after I read Mountains Beyond Mountains. While a medical student at Harvard, Paul Farmer spent most of his time in Haiti, providing free health care to the people he considers to be the most shafted in the Western world. He would fly to Boston for exams but then return to Haiti afterward. During his residency, he once signed his paycheck over to an AIDS patient who otherwise was unable to afford enough food. Now done with all of his training, Dr. Farmer still spends most of his time helping the disadvantaged of the world, in Latin America, Africa, Russia, etc. He feels no entitlement, only frustration that more isn't being done to help those in need.

It was after reading Mountains Beyond Mountains that I decided I must take advantage of Medtronic's offer of one week's paid leave to help the shafted people in New Orleans' 9th Ward. I haven't looked back since.

After reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, I read The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, which made me realize over 1 billion people struggle to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves on less than $1 per day.

Next on the list was They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, which gave me a better understanding of the plight of Africans, many of whom live in extreme poverty, fighting nakedness, hunger, captivity, and sickness.

But while the previous two books I've mentioned were good, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Childrenwas the perfect follow up to Mountains Beyond Mountains. Dr. Farmer helped me realize one person can make a difference. John Wood, with his Room to Read non-profit, has gotten me pumped up about his extremely efficient and effective charity that fights poverty through education. I'm now a volunteer for his organization.

I don't know exactly where I'm going with all of this, but I look forward to the ride...


Liz said...

Ryan -
Life has been full lately and I've neglected to comment on your site as much as I've read it. So thought I would take a moment to at least say I am greatly enjoying the information and interests you're gathering here, and reading this entry about your own 'conversion' to newer depths of charity was really interesting (as someone who is also passionate about related issues and only kind of understood your own calling to it.) I am especially interested in the for-profit/non-profit connections that someone with your training might uniquely bring to the conversation, and look forward to learning from that angle more. Keep up the good work.

JeriGunderson said...


I see we are related by more than blood, but by heart as well. I had no idea....

Paul Farmer has been an inspiration for me for years. I've not read his book although it has been on my "must read when I have a moment" list
for years...only a couple of articles several years back but was most impressed not without a large dose of amusement. Someone with chutzpa like that has got my vote!

I am blessed by your passion!


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I enjoy reading your blog. I haven't read Mountains Beyond Mountains yet but I have read one of Paul Farmer's books (Pathologies of Power) and I am trying to figure out how I want to incorporate sustainable development as I work in public health.

Lesley said...

I am a new board member for Paul Farmer's group Partners In Health and I was so encouraged to read your blog today and hear about how you are determined to make a difference. Would you consider adding Partners In Health ( to your favorite charities list? PIH is one of the top ranked non-profits in the world with one of the lowest overhead costs, which means that over 95% of the funds donated goes right to the patients. They are an incredible group that I am proud to be associated with and they need our money. Many people think that they are funded by the Gates Foundation but that was primarily a one time grant shared by others and was completed years ago. Unlike other groups, they have spent every dollar that comes in immediately on the needs in front of them and as such have save millions of lives. Please contact me at any time if you would like to learn more about PIH.