"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." It's a quote so memorable that it later seemed surprising that I hadn't heard it before.

What's worse is that I didn't quite get the point that Chad Schwitters, executive director of the housing nonprofit Urban Homeworks, was trying to teach as he repeated this line, from the 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau.

This conversation took place in late April, as we met for coffee to explore whether I would join this small housing nonprofit's board of directors. When he quoted Thoreau, I understood him to be frustrated with the vastness of the problem Urban Homeworks is addressing: not enough low-cost and decent housing for lower income families.

Annual gifts and grants for this group totaled up to about $2.5 million, according to the nonprofit's latest publicly available tax return, and that can't make much of a difference in a region short thousands of units of low-cost housing. It's a hack at a branch of a very big tree.

Maybe that's what I understood because it's similar to how I have come to think of the family charitable giving budget. This weekend is when the donations list gets pulled out and double checked, to make sure commitments made earlier in the year get honored with a check or online donation.

Given what we know about the needs of the people served by the nonprofits we try to support, that number at the bottom of the spreadsheet once again won't feel very big.

Just another hack at the branches.

As spring turned into summer, that line from Thoreau kept popping up in my thinking, and it turned out to be a piece of a longer sentence from Thoreau's "Walden," the only book he's still known for. This is how the full thought reads:

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve."

This sentence appeared in the middle of a little rant about philanthropy, not far from where Thoreau observed that if you give some money to a poor person dressed in dirty rags, there's a good chance he will just go buy more rags. It's a question of taste, he wrote, not just a poor person's misfortune.

That's an appalling thing to write, and Thoreau isn't always easy to admire. There's reason to think he didn't much like other people, and the townsfolk of Concord, Mass., may have wished he spent even more time by himself at a pond outside of town.

But his point that the leading philanthropists of Concord could be beneficiaries of an economic system that kept some dressed in rags can't easily be dismissed.

That turned out to be what Schwitters had been trying to tell me. There's easily enough wealth in Minnesota to have everyone living in a secure, dignified house or apartment, he explained last week when we met for coffee again.

If it were up to him, this problem would get solved. And that would represent a very good whack at the root of evil.

Another way of saying this is that the problem doesn't seem to be that too many families can't come up with the monthly rent. That's a symptom. The problem to work on is affluence.

And it's a hard problem. Financially successful people often find that building "enough" wealth is a game with a goal line that keeps moving away from them. And affluence must be a hard problem for nonprofit executives to talk about, too, as it can't be a good idea to send a fundraising pitch with the subject line, "you have way too much, so what are you going to do about it?"

That isn't the way Urban Homeworks does it, of course. All gifts are asked for and received with gratitude, as I know from dropping thank you letters into the tax file.

Maybe a good way to think about all this is that the nonprofits that rely a lot on donors to carry out their missions really provide a service to two groups of people with a pressing need.

One is made up of those who need a secure, decent and affordable place to live. The other is the donors, those people who understand that they have more than enough and know they must find a good home for the surplus.

One good idea, Schwitters said last week, is making sure the two groups of people really see one another.

Urban Homeworks is a faith-based group from the Protestant Christian tradition, and it wasn't surprising to have Schwitters then illustrate his point with the well-known biblical story of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus. He was a Jericho man who not only collaborated with the Roman government as a tax collector, but was assumed to be a swindler, too.

The story begins outside the town, where a blind homeless guy starts shouting over the shushing of the entourage traveling with Jesus, trying to get his attention. Soon his sight is restored, and then he is swept along with the others and into dinner at the big house of Zacchaeus.

This is the part of the story Schwitters emphasized — at dinner is where they would see each other. At that table was a wealthy tax man who that day had already promised to give away half his wealth, along with paying back four times every nickel he had swindled from taxpayers. And across the table was the panhandler who had nothing.

Seeing each other means never demonizing those we perceive as having too much, Schwitters said, just like it's never helpful to blame low-income parents for their own struggles to make the rent.

"For those of us who have a little too much, the stakes might be higher," he said. "We have the ability to act in ways our brothers and sisters who don't have enough don't. And what we do with excess in the face of scarcity is a report card on the condition of one's life."

What this suggests is that when it comes to striking at the root, we probably shouldn't focus on the amount of money we intend to give away. We need to think a lot more about a much bigger number: the amount we had planned to keep.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302