American Culture

Storyline: The Improbable Philanthropist and other stories

DonAlAl Andrews makes an improbable philanthropist.

“Philanthropists have lots of money,” Andrews says. “I didn’t have any.”

Andrews is the first of half a dozen guest speakers who makes appearances during the Storyline conference. Donald Miller calls Andrews from the audience to join him at the cafe table onstage. The two settle in as though they’re about to share a cup of coffee. (“Cafe,” Miller has joked, is the word for “pub” for people raised Baptist.)

Andrews runs a nonprofit counseling service for recording artists and their families, Porter’s Call, in Nashville, Tennessee.

While he’s found meaning in his work, Andrews explained that he dreamt of something more. “What I really wanted to be was a philanthropist,” he says.

Because he didn’t have lots of money, he decided he’d make some—although, at first, he didn’t have a quick way to do it. “A character who wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it,” Miller later reminds Storyline attendees.

Taking a slower, more deliberate approach, Andrews chose to write a children’s book, self-publish it, and give 100% of the proceeds to charity. He hired Jonathan Bouw, a professional artist and graphic arts professor at Taylor University, to illustrate it. The result: The Boy, The Kite, & The Wind.

“Why do people fly kites?” Andrews asks, breaking into a mirthful chuckle. “It always ends badly. It’s the one thing we do for fun that always ends badly. The kite ends up in the tree or crashing to the ground. Anyone here have a kite in their garage.” No hands go up.

And yet we keep flying kites.


Andrews wrote his book to try and figure out why.

But as Andrews worked on his book, something surprising happened. People heard about his project and wanted to join in. Before he knew it, Andrews had his own publishing company and a nonprofit to go with it, Improbable Philanthropy. A designer cooked up a logo. Donors appeared.

Andrews’ kites took off.

For his first project, Andrews funded the installation of an elevator at Thistle Farms, a nonprofit residential program in Nashville that helps women “who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets.” They call it the “‘Al’-evator” in honor of the philanthropist who made it possible.

For his next project, Andrew is raising scholarship money for a group of Ugandan kids from the Restore Leadership Academy to go to university.

Miller uses Andrews as an example of the power of personal stories as a way to affect change. Going back to Miller’s definition of a good story: Andrews was a character who wanted something (to be a philanthropist) and had to over come obstacles (having no money, having no publishing experience) to achieve it.

Over the course of the two days, Miller calls up other speakers: entrepreneur Caitlyn Crosby, whose “Giving Keys” project promotes self-esteem and a pay-it-forward mentality; Bob Goff, founder of Restore International, a human rights watch group that finds “audacious ways to restore justice to children and the poorest of the poor”; and Mike Foster, who runs a ministry called People of the Second Chance. “It is time to stand in the sun with the shadow to our backs,” Foster says.

TomTalkingWe also watch an extraordinary film called I Am by Tom Shadyac. Shadyac has directed a slew of comedies—Ace Ventura; The Nutty Professor; Liar, Liar; and Bruce Almighty among them—but I Am traces Shadyac’s personal journey to answer the questions “What is wrong with the world? What can I do about it?” Along with stunning cinematography, the film features interviews with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, scientist David Suzuki, historian Howard Zinn, Rumi translator Coleman Barks, and a dozen other brilliant thinkers. It’s a thought-provoking blend of science, humanities, and spiritualism. After the screening, Shadyac engages in a talkback session with the audience.

Each improbable story illustrates Miller’s main point: our lives are like stories, and in proactively plotting them out—and taking ownership of unexpected plot turns—we can have a meaningful impact on the people around us.

It’s all very inspiring—part of Miller’s plan, no doubt. As I muddle about, wondering about my own purpose in life, it’s good to be reminded of folks who make differences big and small. They key, as Miller suggests and Andrews illustrates, is to have a clear goal. Everything works toward that. “If your life was a movie, what would the final scene look like?” Miller asks. “Now what scenes belong in your movie to help you get there?” Leave out the scenes that don’t help advance the plot toward that conclusion; leave out the scenes that don’t tell that story.

ChrisAlSigningAfter Andrews’ session, I pick up a couple copies of his book—one for me and one for the elementary school in my hometown, where I’ll reading Dr. Seuss books a few days from now for Read Across America Day. Andrews brims with good humor as he signs them for me. With a bigger beard and a few pounds, he could be Santa Claus (the most improbable philanthropist of all).

Why do people fly kites? Because, in so many ways, it’s uplifting.