THE BLOG
05/13/2013 06:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2013

The Accidental Philanthropist

Getty Images

So a few weeks ago, I was at my parents' house visiting when my mom handed me a blue folder that was bursting at the seams. Inside, it was filled with old Steve and DC radio stuff, from our newsletter to our cover on Morning Mouth Magazine to old blogs I'd written for them way back when. She even had some cassettes labeled "Dan's Cancer Show."

"I did a cancer show?"

I didn't quite remember this, but on a Wednesday morning, a few weeks after I had completed chemotherapy (but before losing lefty), I spent about two hours on the air fielding questions, giving my story, even doing a sportscast again.

But listening back to it, the one thing that stood out to me about that day was when I said, "And I want to do something, maybe write something, so others don't have to suffer the same stupid experiences that I have endured for the last four months."

In that moment, I inadvertently laid the groundwork for what would become the Half Fund. I just didn't know it.

In 2004, Wayne Elsey was enjoying his Christmas holidays when a catastrophic event literally shook the world. On Sunday, December 26, just off the west coast of Sumatra, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake, the third largest ever recorded on a seismograph, rocked our planet for over eight minutes. It triggered earthquakes as far away as Alaska. It was akin to the size of 1500 Hiroshima atomic bombs detonating at the same time. It caused the entire planet to vibrate a centimeter.

And it resulted in a cataclysmic tsunami that ravaged many countries in that part of the Pacific. None of us who saw the footage will ever forget the wall of water the height of a three-story building that devastated the coast lines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, among others. As Wayne sat on his couch, mouth agape, he noticed amid the carnage a single child's shoe. "I can do something about that," he thought.

In that moment, he had inadvertently laid the groundwork for what would become Soles4Souls. He just didn't know it.

In January of 2012, a mutual friend brought Wayne and I together for the first time. Wayne had cultivated Soles4Souls into a gargantuan success, while our little Half Fund was still trying to find its legs. On paper, we had nothing in common. Thankfully, life isn't lived on paper. We were sitting in a car on our last full day in Haiti when we had our most meaningful conversation about why we do what we do. At the end of it, we both realized that each of us was trying to make the world a better place in our own ways, and success or yet to be successful, that is all that mattered.

At that moment, we laid the groundwork for what would become an amazing friendship, and a whole new set of ways to change the world. We just didn't know it.

When we're kids growing up, we all have dreams of what we want to be or do. Some of us want to be cops or firemen. Others want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher. Some of us want to be on the big screen, while others like working behind the scenes. And while many of us say, "I want to help people," very few of us actually think about the further steps about how to do it. And the ones who take that path less traveled end up doing so without a map. Or a compass. Or a flashlight. At midnight.

Every philanthropist I know has become one by accident.

About a year ago, I reconnected with an old friend named Adam, with whom I worked in radio in the mid-'90s. Adam, like me, has been profoundly touched by cancer.

Last week, he read on our 'book page that we were starting something called the "Million Pair Initiative," where we are going to raise one million pairs of shoes to benefit people in Haiti, Tanzania, and Guatemala, while at the same time collecting a fee from each pair for our own mission of spreading cancer education.

I'll give you one guess which gentleman is our partner in this endeavor.

So Adam reached out to me wanting to be a part of our effort, but the last line of his email threw me: "How in the world did you become so philanthropic? Is there a family connection? Is it through your battle with cancer, etc.? It is just not necessarily a path the 'common man' takes if you understand what I mean."

So I sat and thought about it for a while. And then it hit me: the common men and women are precisely the ones who affect change, and anyone can do it. From my own perspective, there are four things you need to become an accidental philanthropist.

1. You must experience something that profoundly affects you, good or bad. It has to stir you to, as Wayne puts it, "Get off the couch." If I don't contract testicular cancer, we're probably not starting the Half Fund, or even thinking about the idea. If Wayne isn't watching TV that day and never sees that child's lone shoe, is he compelled to collect shoes for those in need?

2. It has to be in a field that you know, you do, or you love. When I finally beat cancer, I wanted to share my experience so that others wouldn't fall into the same traps as I did, and the only way I knew how to do it was to write a screenplay, and everything grew from there. When Wayne saw the tsunami footage, he called his friends in the shoe industry of which he was a major player. Within two months, 200,000 pairs were on their way to that ravaged part of our earth.

3. You can't be afraid to succeed. Jack Nicklaus was once asked about how certain golfers are so dominant while others seem to crack, and his answer was telling: "There is a big difference between being afraid to lose, and not being afraid to win." When you start something philanthropic, you are going out on a huge limb. You are going to expose yourself to the world where you say, "This touches my heart." But you learn quickly that it's not going to touch every heart. You're going to have to ask for money, time, and resources that you don't have, yourself. You are not going to grow nearly as fast as you would like, or you are going to grow too fast for comfort. You will have so many things against you that make you think, "Was this a good idea? Maybe I could quietly bow out and leave on my own terms. I'm probably not cut out for it anyway. Please don't let me miss this two-foot putt for the win."

You have to remind yourself that philanthropy is infectious. If you meet someone and they agree to listen to your story, and they see your passion and inspiring message, you will convert the masses. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Tell me how I can help," or "I want to help, and I have five other friends that you should meet."

So the mentality you need is, "I'm going to make the two-foot putt for the win. And if I don't, I'll win in the playoff. And if I don't win this week, I'm playing next week. And no matter how long it takes, through hard work, dedication, support and faith, I will succeed eventually. And every missed two-foot putt fuels my desire even more."

4. Surround yourself with people smarter than you. When you find your passion to help others, and you have an idea of how to do it, human nature will make you do everything yourself. You are going to come up with your PR. You are going to come up with your website. You are going to do the grunt work, the leg work, the message work, the story work, the artwork, the logo work, the name work, and the everything work. And by doing this, for every step forward you take, you're going to take a half-step back. For instance, I know I can write because I've been making a living at it for twenty years. Yet I know both my boys, ages seven and five, are more creative with artwork than I will ever be. Before you go full bore into the soup, find people who share your passion, are very good at what they do, and will be willing to be a part of the mission.

And in the end, regardless of how successful your philanthropic effort is, take heart in the fact that you had the desire to change the world, and we are all better for it.

Discover more at www.thehalffund.org