"I try to make the poor into capitalists"
Travel company operator gives away $6,000 salary, lives on Social Security
AP Business Writer
Travel company operator Hal Taussig of Media, Pa., donates all of his company's profits — and his $6,000-a-year salary — to a foundation that loans money to worthy causes.
MEDIA, Pa. — Travel company operator Hal Taussig buys his clothes from thrift shops, resoles his shoes and reads magazines for free at the public library. The 83-year-old founder of Untours also gives away all of his company's profits to help the poor — more than $5 million since 1999. He is content to live on Social Security.
Taussig takes a salary of $6,000 a year from his firm, but doesn't keep it. It goes to a foundation that channels his company's profits to worthy causes in the form of low-interest loans. (About seven years ago, the IRS forced him to take a paycheck, he said, because they thought he was trying to avoid paying taxes by working for free.)
If he has money left at the end of the month in his personal bank account, he donates it. At a time of the year when many people are asked to give to the poor, Taussig provides a model for year-round giving. "I could live a very rich life on very little money. My life is richer than most rich people's lives," said Taussig. "I can really do something for humanity."
A moment of clarity
His decision to give away his wealth stems from a moment of clarity and freedom he felt when he wrote a $20,000 check — all of his money back in the 1980s — to a former landlord to buy the house they were renting. It didn't work out, but the exhilaration of not being encumbered by money stuck with him. "It was kind of an epiphany," he said. "This is where my destiny is. This is what I was meant to be."
He and his wife, Norma, live simply, in a country house in suburban Philadelphia that's nearly a century old, with two bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths. It is neither luxurious nor sparse, but a comfortable home filled with photos and knickknacks with wraparound views of trees and clothes drying on a clothes line. To cut energy use and help the environment, they don't own a dryer.
Norma Taussig uses a wheelchair after suffering a stroke years ago. They have been married for 61 years and have three children, five grandkids and five great-grandchildren.
Taussig said his marriage improved when he and his wife decided in the 1970s to keep separate bank accounts. His wife lives on Social Security and savings from her job as a school district secretary and later as an employee of Untours travel. Her salary never went above $30,000 a year.
Taussig said the house — purchased for $41,000 in 1986 and owned by his wife — is paid for and so is her 12-year-old Toyota Corolla. Taussig has his bike for transportation, which he faithfully rides to and from work every day, three miles round trip.
Quality of life vs. standard of living
He calls consumerism a "social evil" and "corrupting to our humanity" because of what he said is the false notion that having more things leads to a richer life. "Quality of life is not the same as standard of living," he said. "I couldn't afford (to buy) a car but I learned it's more fun and better for your health to ride a bike. I felt I was raising my quality of life while lowering my standard of living."
Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, met Taussig through a network of social-minded businesses and describes him as "a humble guy — not your typical CEO."
While big corporations give away more money than Taussig, Cohen said, the donation could be "one-half of 1 percent of profits while Hal gave away $5 million and that's 100 percent of his profits."
In 1999, Untours won the $250,000 Newman's Own/George Award for corporate philanthropy, given by actor Paul Newman and the late John F. Kennedy Jr., publisher of the now-defunct George magazine. The awards event was held in New York City but Taussig balked at paying the city's high hotel prices. He stayed at a youth hostel while he donated the quarter-million-dollar award to his foundation.
A hostel reaction
Kennedy's reaction to his hostel stay? "He stared at me blankly," Taussig said. The Untours Foundation loans money to groups or businesses at around the inflation rate. The current loan rate is 3.7 percent. The foundation's tax filing shows total assets of $1.8 million in 2005, the latest record available, of which $1.6 million went to 38 groups or firms. Hal Taussig is the president, and his wife is the vice president. They don't get salaries.
"I try to make the poor into capitalists," Taussig said. "They should be self-sustaining. You give them money and they run out and you have to give more. But if you give them a way to make a living, it's like teaching them how to fish rather than giving them fish."
Equal Exchange, a cooperative that buys mainly coffee, tea and cocoa from farmers around the world at "fair trade" prices and conditions, has received $70,000 from Untours. Untours bought preferred shares of the cooperative and gets paid a 5 percent annual dividend, which is put back into the foundation.
Equal Exchange buys crops of poor farmers, such as those growing coffee in the Piuran mountains of Peru, at prices above market rates, said Alistair Williamson, investment coordinator for Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater, Mass. The coffee is roasted and distributed by the co-op.
"Somewhere on the hillsides of Peru, families are inching their way out of desperate, desperate poverty," Williamson said. He said the for-profit co-op's message reflects that of social-minded businesses like Untours: "You can make a buck, and you can be decent."