Over the years I have asked donors hundreds of questions about philanthropy and fundraising, but my favorite is always, “Can you remember the first time you gave?” Every donor can. Consciously doing something selfless for the benefit of others is a heady experience every time, but that first time is always something particularly special.
While each story that donors have told me is very meaningful and while some have taken my breath away, this one keeps returning from the recesses of my memory. I heard it twenty years ago and I remember exactly where I was when the donor told me his story. While this was the first time we met, I certainly knew him by reputation. He had built a powerful career in finance and had become a dedicated community volunteer and renowned philanthropist. This was his story.
“I grew up in India, the youngest of six in a family wracked with poverty. Mother and father took jobs by the day whenever they could find work. Everyone scrounged, made do; luxuries were out of the question. Yet, still, somehow, my parents managed to stash away a modest emergency fund. The equivalent of a penny here and a nickel there — whatever could be spared — was placed in a small tin that was hidden in a safe place in the house. All the children knew where it was just in case an emergency arose when mother and father weren’t home. Everyone also knew how precious it was and how serious it would be should this emergency fund ever go missing.
One day there was a knock on the door. Father, who was home that day, opened it to find a man with two young children standing on the other side. With as much dignity as he could muster, the man asked if my father could spare any food. His children had not eaten that day and he had not worked even one day that month.
I was peering out at this family from behind my father, not saying a word. Slowly and with deep regret in his voice, my father said he had nothing to spare. Thanking him for his time, the gentleman and his children turned and walked away.
When my father resumed what he had been doing before, I went to the special hiding place, put the emergency tin under my shirt, sneaked outside, and ran down the street after the father and his two children. With a quick, “This is for you,” I pressed the can into the father’s hand and, just as quickly, ran back into the house.”
My donor paused for a moment and then said, “This was my first philanthropic experience. And, no matter how long I continue to give or how much, this one will always be the most generous gift I ever make.”
Especially at this time of year, young donors who are full of excitement are stepping forward to give for the first time while older donors are digging even deeper to help make life better for someone else. Fundraisers will unleash giving at a higher level by turning to their dictionary for guidance.
Philanthropist [fi-lan-thruh-pist]: lover of mankind.
Happy holidays to my dear colleagues.