Giving It All

  • Religion
  • 2007

Alan Barnhart is an evangelical Christian, and when he and his brother Eric decided to go into business together in 1986 (they were in their mid-20s), Alan studied the Bible to see what it said about moneymaking. Wherever he turned he found warnings that money can be dangerous. “I read all these verses and I thought, ‘I want to be good in business, and I’m competitive. But I don’t want to make a lot of money if doing so would damage my life. And I could see where it really could.” So the two young men did something very unusual. When they launched their new crane and rigging company, they vowed to cap their income at the level of the middle-class fellow members of their Sunday-school class in Memphis, Tennessee, and channel much of their company’s profits to charity. In their first year of business they donated $50,000—more than Alan’s salary.

Nearly 30 years later, the two men run a company with $250 million of annual revenue, but they have stuck to their decision on salaries and profits and have given away about $100 million. Half of the money made each year by Barnhart Crane & Rigging is reinvested in the company; the other half goes to charity. There is no corporate foundation or bureaucracy—committees of employees and their spouses meet regularly to decide where to donate. Currently most of the funds are sent to development projects and Christian ministries in poor countries in Africa, the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia. Employee Joye Allen says that’s where she and her co-workers see the largest needs. “That’s where God is really working.”

In 2007, the Barnharts decided to go even further: They moved the entire company into a charitable trust owned by the National Christian Foundation. NCF has developed a specialty at helping entrepreneurs donate still-operating businesses, and they set up a structure which allows Alan and Eric to continue to run the firm. This retains the for-profit power of the enterprise and its skilled managers, while guaranteeing that all of the wealth generated by the company, either in annual earnings or increased valuation, ultimately goes to charitable good. Alan’s wife, Katherine, says the donors get something out of the bargain too: “Giving feeds our soul. Giving has us looking outward…to serve the God that we love.”

Alan views it as a bonus that this arrangement prevents his children from growing up wealthy. “There are great benefits to a kid to hear the word ‘no,’ and the theology of the Rolling Stones: ‘You don’t always get what you want,’” he says. “I taught them the joy of giving early,” adds Katherine. “I taught them the joy of contentment.”