Extreme Generosity or Pathological Behavior?

Zell Kravinsky was a brilliant student who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. He won prizes at school, and at the age of 12, he began investing in the stock market. Despite his abilities, his Russian immigrant parents were, in the words of a family friend, “steadfast in denying him any praise.” Kravinsky eventually completed two Ph.D. degrees and indulged his growing interest in real estate. By the time he was 45 years old, he was married with children. His assets amounted to almost $45 million. Although Kravinsky had a talent for making money, he found it difficult to spend it. He drove an old car, did not give his children pocket money, and lived with his family in a modest home. As his fortune grew, however, he began to talk to his friends about his plans to give all of his assets to charity. His philanthropy began in earnest when he and his wife gave two gifts, totaling $6.2 million, to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation. They also donated an apartment building to a school for the disabled in Philadelphia. The following year the Kravinskys gave real estate gifts worth approximately $30 million to Ohio State University. Kravinsky’s motivation for his donations was to help others. According to one of his friends, “He gave away the money because he had it and there were people who needed it. But it changed his way of looking at himself. He decided the purpose of his life was to give away things.” After he had put some money aside in trust for his wife and his children, Kravinsky’s personal assets were reduced to a house (on which he had a substantial mortgage), two minivans, and around $80,000 in stocks and cash. He had essentially given away his entire fortune. Kravinsky’s donations did not end when his financial assets became depleted. He began to be preoccupied with the idea of nondirected organ donations, in which an altruistic person gives an organ to a total stranger. When he learned that he could live quite normally with only one kidney, Kravinsky decided that the personal costs of giving away one of his kidneys were minimal compared to the benefits received by the kidney recipient. His wife, however, did not share his view. Although she had consented to bequeathing substantial sums of money to worthwhile charities, when it came to her husband offering his kidney, she could not support him. For Kravinsky, however, the burden of refusing to help alleviate the suffering of someone in need was almost unbearable, even if it meant sacrificing his very own organs. He called the Albert Einstein Medical Center and spoke to a transplant coordinator. He met with a surgeon and then with a psychiatrist. Kravinsky told the psychiatrist that his wife did not support his desire to donate one of his kidneys. When the psychiatrist told him that he was doing something he did not have to do, Kravinsky’s response was that he did need to make this sacrifice: “You’re missing the whole point. It’s as much a necessity as food, water, and air.” Three months later, Kravinsky left his home in the early hours of the morning, drove to the hospital, and donated his right kidney. He informed his wife after the surgery was over. In spite of the turmoil that his kidney donation created within his family, Kravinsky’s mind turned back to philanthropy almost immediately. “I lay there in the hospital, and I thought about all my other good organs. When I do something good, I feel that I can do more. I burn to do more. It’s a heady feeling.” By the time he was discharged, he was wondering about giving away his one remaining kidney. After the operation, Kravinsky experienced a loss of direction. He had come to view his life as a continuing donation. However, now that his financial assets and his kidney were gone, what could he provide to the less fortunate? Sometimes he imagines offering his entire body for donation. “My organs could save several people if I gave my whole body away.” He acknowledges that he feels unable to hurt his family through the sacrifice of his life. Several years after the kidney donation, Kravinsky still remains committed to giving away as much as possible. However, his actions have caused a tremendous strain in his marriage. In an effort to maintain a harmonious relationship with his wife, he is now involved in real estate and has recently bought his family a larger home. (Taken from Parker, 2004.)