All Philanthropy Starts with a First Gift

Once again, I am delighted to share with readers of Burk’s Blog some new stories and anecdotes from donors who have just participated in the tenth edition of The Burk Donor Survey. This collection is a peek into the circumstances of people’s lives that start them along the path towards a lifetime of giving. I hope you enjoy reading them and that these stories stay with you as you turn your attention to planning your critical year-end campaigns.

The first charitable gift I remember making was several years after college. I received a phone call from a student during a capital campaign at my alma mater. He told me about the college’s campaign plans. I found him easy to relate to, having been a student myself not many years before. It was definitely the human touch that made me want to give. Since then, I have been asked to give many times by my college, but always through form letters and email campaigns. I do give, but would give more if the request came from a real person like that first time. I miss the human contact.

Beginning as a young child, my parents made it clear that charitable giving was a non-negotiable expectation of people who are able. They gave me an allowance on condition that I put aside 10% each week and then donate it to a charity of my choice at the end of the year. I still give today, and consider that early experience to be the foundation of my connection with philanthropy.

I grew up in the Navy and lived in Morocco for two years when I was a child. I saw a level of poverty in the villages there that I had never seen in the United States. It changed how I saw my place in the world.

My journey to financial independence was a long one, paying off $75,000 in student loans over the course of five years on a relatively small income. I learned to cut my expenses, budget, and live frugally. I’m 30 now, and I’ve been debt-free for two years. But one of the biggest benefits of that journey was realizing that I’m actually in quite a good situation and able to help other people, while being grateful for the things that I have. Now I commit to giving a portion of every month’s income. It has become a habit and it feels good.

I give because I am a white American male with all of the advantages that come from that. I want to share my good fortune.

Our 17-year old son, Drew, died by suicide in 2014. Since his death, we donate to some meaningful causes every year in his memory, on his birthday. It is our way of continuing to give a birthday present to our son.

Just after graduating from university in the mid-1970s, I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English as a foreign language at high schools in Senegal. I saw first-hand the devastation of slavery and colonialism — western powers extracting mineral and agricultural resources from struggling countries. My commitment today to NGOs serving children and youth overseas, in the world’s poorest communities, was borne from that experience.

One day, someone from Greenpeace knocked on my door. He was doing a survey about environmental issues that people were most interested in, and of course accepting donations. We talked for awhile. At the time, I was very concerned about the imminent expiration of the Antarctic Treaty, something the solicitor knew nothing about. We wound up educating each other that day. I’ve given to Greenpeace ever since–almost 40 years now.

I was fortunate that the college I attended was tuition-free. I felt I owed a debt of gratitude for my education which I credit for significantly changing my life. After starting to give to my college, my interest in philanthropy grew. Now I give to several other worthy not-for-profits.

Charitable giving and volunteering have always been a priority for my family. I remember watching my dad write checks to non-profits at an early age. I feel that giving, when you have the means to do it, is an important part of being a responsible community member.

When I was eight years old I answered a phone call from the March of Dimes who was calling to remind my mother to turn in her March of Dimes booklet. (She was supposed to solicit our neighbors for donations.) I found the booklet and saw that it was empty, so I ran to my room and inserted all the dimes I could find. Then I went through the neighborhood until every spot was filled on the card. March of Dimes was thrilled. (I have to admit, though, that the neighbors got a bit tired of me because I continued to canvas for several more years.)

I made a first gift to my alma mater because I knew the department chair. That led to being invited to events to meet interesting people. Over time, the faculty became willing to consider my advice on how they could improve in the area of gender disparity. It became a relationship that benefited us both.

My family lived in a housing project and, as a young child, I watched my mother be a neighborhood captain for the Red Feather Community Chest campaign (forerunner to the United Way.) She believed everyone could find a dollar to help others, regardless of their own circumstances.

A phone call in 1980 inspired me to start a small scholarship fund for my alma mater, with the help of a group of grads at my workplace. This led to meeting various staff, many of whom became friends over time. Then, just before I retired in 2005, I was approached by the university to increase the value of the scholarship and to include a bequest in my will. I was happy to do both. In 2007 I made another gift and soon after I was elected a Trustee. This very good experience has led to expanding my philanthropic giving to other worthy causes. Charitable giving has become a main source of enjoyment in my life.

In Middle School, our teachers would allow us to bring a can of pop to class on days when we watched movies. On those days my dad would give me extra money and say something like, “Don’t spend it on yourself; keep an eye out for anyone who doesn’t have their own can of pop. It’s not about bringing attention to yourself and it’s probably best if they don’t know the money is coming from you. But nobody should go without their can of pop. Everyone should feel part of the class.”

I was really inspired by public radio when I immigrated to the US. It became the principle way I learned about my new home, and I so appreciated the content they provided. When I realised that the vast majority of public radio funding came directly from listeners, I felt compelled to become one of their donors.

I began tithing as a young adult and found it to be a very powerful experience. Initially, I was afraid to give away that much of my income because I was making so little, but I found that I still had enough for all my needs…and then some.

I adopted a cat from a local humane society in 2006…the first pet I had when I moved out on my own. I was impressed by the organization, so donated money…which led to opportunities to learn more about the organization. As I learned more, I became even more impressed, and increased my giving as my career and financial resources grew. I then started volunteering for this wonderful organization. Today, my humane society gets my most generous contributions.

After my sister and her babies were killed by a drunk driver, I became involved with MADD. I continue to support their mission by organizing a walk team every year for the Walk Like MADD event. My six month-old niece, who was killed, was an organ donor, so I also support Donate Life in her memory.

My first exposure to philanthropy was through a large company where I worked that participated in the United Way campaign. That experience led to giving to other organizations, initially while I still worked at that company, but especially after.

I think my entry point for becoming a donor was the special connection I had with animals. My first donations were to organizations that were involved in humane work. From there it was a small step to environmental organizations, and eventually to more people-focused causes.

As a surviving military veteran, I saw the need close up which compelled me to give. I was one of the lucky ones whose PTSD was eventually overcome, thanks to time and a supporting family. Now I give to help others whose struggles are even more difficult.

Participating in my professional-social Sorority as an undergraduate connected me with the feeling that I am part of something much larger than myself. Working to build a legacy by and for our members showed me how rewarding it feels to contribute to a cause. That early positive impact has inspired me to support other organizations that contribute to making the world better and I do that through both giving and volunteering.

I was a single mother living in a community with a lot of families with more money than we had. I realized one day that my children saw us as poor. So I started giving money to Save the Children as a way of demonstrating to my own children that there are many people a lot poorer than us.

My first experience in a developing country was a life-changer. I had always considered myself to be fortunate to have what I have, but that experience made me realize how little I actually need.

I’m a Jew; giving is just part of the deal for us. There was no particular incident that started me along the path of giving. Just the “joy” of growing up as the “other” and realizing that if I don’t contribute to my people’s needs, my faith will not survive.

At my college commencement, the head of the alumni society made a brief speech. I took that as encouragement to start giving to my college, and my first charitable donation ever was a very modest gift to my alma mater. I’ve given to them every year since.

My wife was killed while riding her bike. As a legacy to her, I became involved in a project to build a regional non-motorized bike trail.

I am a regular blood donor, inspired by my Mom who used to lie about her weight in order to be able to increase the number of blood donations she made. So far, I have donated more than 8 gallons of blood.

I have always been keenly aware of the fact that though my birth family was often in a “precarious” state, I was always confident of a safe, warm, and loving environment and never in fear of hunger or homelessness. My parents were raised in poverty, but my Father earned a PhD without any support from his family–they had none to give. I was fortunate to attend the University of Michigan and meet my spouse there. The education I received led to a comfortable life financially. Because of my father’s example and my own great experience, I am a devoted supporter of my alma mater.

My parents were professional classical musicians and professors of music. The survival of their orchestras was dependent on donors. They never forgot that and it left an impression on me, their son. That is why I give.

I once got a service award that included the opportunity to make a donation to a charity of my own choosing. That money, plus rigorously saving my allowance throughout high school, made it possible for me to make a donation to the summer camp I attended during my middle and high school years. I gave to the camp’s scholarship fund which meant I could send two people to camp for a week. The pride I felt with this accomplishment has continued to stick with me, and it’s why I still give today.

I was a stay-at-home mom with 3 young children when my husband went to prison. I was left to pick up the pieces of our lives and it included seeking assistance at food banks, social service agencies, and charitable organizations. Their help allowed me to go back to college, get my degree and a good job. I have been giving back ever since.

My parents struggled to raise six children in post-WW II rural mid-west but they always planted an extra garden and raised extra chickens or pigs for sharing with those who were poor in our community. Today my siblings and I differ in political persuasion, how we practice our faith, where we live and in every possible way, but we are all involved in volunteering and in sharing our wealth of health, education, location and history. We do it to honor our parents.

Dad used to let me call in the pledge to PBS when I was a kid. I thought that was a very grown up thing to do. For me, it planted the seed which has grown into a lifetime of philanthropy.

I remember I used to struggle with the idea of parting with my hard-earned dollars. One day, the idea came to me that I am blessed to have a job with a decent income. I decided then and there that I did not want to give grudgingly, or feel that I was forcing myself to do it. I wanted to give out of gratitude. Since then, I have always tried to give because I am grateful. I volunteer my time also, realizing that I have gifts of helping and teaching that can be of benefit to others.

When I was 70 my father died and I became a millionaire. I knew that to avoid the hefty inheritance tax, I would need to give the money away. I also knew that that would be what my parents would want me to do.

This past fall I pledged a monthly recurring gift to my local NPR station due to the incredibly moving and local stories they aired during their fall fund drive. It was a particular story about a community of truck drivers coming together to prevent a suicide on an interstate highway that moved me to give a sustaining gift. This has now led to three additional recurring monthly contributions to other organizations. Giving breeds more giving.

I started giving because I wanted to be a human being.

Editor’s Note: You can still partner with Penelope and her team in the 10th edition of The Burk Donor Survey. Partners get all the results free of charge. More information is available here.

  • Debbie Eliason

    I love these stories. Thanks, Penelope, for sharing them!

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