How Philanthropy Begins

As my blog arrived in your inbox, I wonder if you were poised in front of your computer screen, trying to draft your next appeal or craft a thank you letter for gifts just received. Writing compelling copy is difficult; writing compelling copy to someone you don’t know is even harder. Since the majority of your donors is known to you only as names, file numbers and amounts of money, it’s no wonder that fundraising copy tends to reflect an absence of human connection. It is overly constrained when it should be exuberant, businesslike when it should be personal, and safe when it should be adventurous.

To date, 22,500 donors have joined the 2014 Burk Door Survey. (We may reach a new record by the time the survey closes.) Among the many questions we are asking this year is this one: “Can you remember the first time you made a charitable gift and, if so, can you tell us the story?” 46% of respondents can vividly remember their first foray into philanthropy, which is amazing since many have been giving for more than forty years.

Donors say they experience a joyful rush when they make the decision to give but are often disappointed when the acknowledgement letter they get back is labored and distant. Understanding donors’ depth of feeling makes it easier for copywriters and relationship managers to respond in kind. Getting into their heads and hearts is equally important for executive decision-makers so that they shape fundraising strategies that honor the people who give, not just their donations.

Here are some first-gift stories we have received from survey respondents so far. Perhaps they will help you bridge the gap that often exists between fundraiser and donor, allowing you to produce more compelling copy and design more meaningful engagement strategies.


The first time I was asked to give was in a total stranger’s living room. It was a small fundraising event and someone delivered an emotional and compelling story about something that had affected her personally. That did it for me. I wrote a check before I left that event.

I began giving as a young child to Unicef when I was in elementary school. I saved my pennies for months to contribute to my sister’s tin can, as I was too young to have one of my own.

When I got my first real job after college, I was paid $8,990/year. I told myself that in addition to volunteering, I would start giving when my salary reached $25,000. The day that it did, I took the first $100 of my first paycheck and gave it to my company’s United Way workplace campaign.

I guess I had the natural gift of giving. When I made my first will, I left money to a few causes before I even knew what planned giving was.

My first philanthropic gift was to my local public radio station while I was in college. I used to listen while I studied and wanted to support them.

I first gave through the Mennonite Central Committee. I was won over as a child when we collected mittens to send to children in North Korea. My parents helped us make Christmas bundles; my mother sewed layettes for newborns.

My daughter suffered from mental illness for years. Eventually, she committed suicide. That’s why I started giving.

My first gift was to a political campaign when I was in high school. I liked the speaker, so I gave a large amount (for a kid) — $25. The candidate was delighted but a bit embarrassed, too, that he was taking this sum from a teenager. So, he tried to give it back to me but I said “No, please accept it.” I thought he was sincere which made me glad that I gave.

My first gift was to the Salvation Army. I remember asking my mom if I could borrow money to put in their kettle. I had to stand on my toes to put it in, so I must have been very little!

My first experience with donating was in high school in planning a marathon charity dance.  It was a lot of fun, and I got to choose one of the recipient charities, an emergency shelter for teens. When I presented the cheque, the organization’s representative said she was impressed with the maturity of how the whole event was handled. That really meant a lot to me as a struggling, awkward teenager. This was all the encouragement I needed to become a donor.

My first philanthropic gift was to the American Civil Liberties Union because I have a big mouth, and the ACLU is preserving my right to use it.

I was at a Golf Tournament for Martha House many years ago.  A woman spoke about her life with an abusive husband, how she struggled to be safe and keep her children safe, and how Martha House gave her the only chance she felt she had to escape this life.  The speech was so moving and powerful, I promised myself I would make a difference, no matter how small, in the lives of others for the rest of my life.

The first time I gave, I donated to the hospital that took care of my grandfather during his last days. The comfort they gave him made me want to give to the hospital in his honor.

When I was 11 years old I was concerned for the plight of whales. So, I gave a gift to the World Wildlife Fund specifically to help the whales. The money came from delivering papers, cutting grass for my neighbours and painting.

I remember the first time I gave very well. I was on vacation in Toronto, having a great day. I was walking down the street, and a canvasser from a not-for-profit organization approached me and asked for a minute of my time. I listened, it was a reputable organization, I liked what I heard, and the rest is history.

In the early 80’s, my family was flooded out of our home twice in two months and both times the Red Cross was there for us. We were so moved by their generosity and the kindness of strangers that it compelled me to reach out and become a donor myself.

My first gift was buying war stamps to support our effort in World War II.   That was a long time ago. Today I’m a widow, far from rich, but so richly blessed with a small house, abundant food, time to enjoy the beauties of nature and the love of family.  That’s why I still give so many decades later.

I was invited to attend a donor recognition event because my dad donated tissue when he died. At that ceremony, people came to testify how it changed their life to have an organ donated. That was the moment I became a donor.

My first donation was $35 to Wisconsin Public Radio, and that was sometime in the 70’s.  Though I always listened to WPR, I did not donate because we were living below the poverty line. But my nine-year old son said one day during a pledge drive, “You know we can afford $35.”  Although I didn’t agree, I somehow found a way and sent in $35 and became a member of WPR. That was a life- changing decision.  There is a saying that goes: If you don’t donate when you are poor, you won’t do it later, even when you can afford it.

It was a line on the back of a newsletter that caught my eye.  It said “If it were your family you would want someone to care.”  That hit me in a very personal way.  At the time I was young, living far from home and had always kept enough money aside to pay for a trip home in the event of a medical emergency.  The newsletter was from an organization called Family House — a hospital hospitality house.  The cause aligned with my personal concerns. I made a gift for roughly the same amount I would need to travel home – $600.  It was the most satisfying gift I’ve made to this day.  It was personal.  It was my first.  I knew the organization and I felt an enormous sense of gratitude that it was there, helping patients and families stay together during medical crises.

My parents made us gather unused toys every year before Christmas when I was very young. We took the toys and food to one of my dad’s employee’s homes that needed help. It made a lasting impression on me.

I was up in the middle of the night working on my computer during an ice storm in 2007 and saw a story on the US news about a man who built a special sanctuary for cats called Tabby’s Place. At the time I did not have the money to donate, but as soon as I did, this was the first organization I chose for a monthly recurring donation.

When I was in 5th grade, I had an outing at the Mall with a school club. My mother had given me money for lunch and to do some Christmas shopping for the family. I gave it all to an organization in the mall that gives Christmas gifts to local needy children.

My modest giving was first inspired when I graduated from a boarding school which solicited its alumni every year. The campaign was very low key and the emphasis was clearly on participation, not gift value. I am one of several members of my class who has managed to give something every year since graduation, some 56 years ago.

I always thought of myself as a fairly thrifty person, but a house cleaner named Roosevelt (named for “the friend of the poor man”) Johnson changed my life forever when he commented to me that he bet I’d never worn out a pair of shoes in my life. I was young then, and had parents who modeled philanthropy, but it brought home to me a contrast that hadn’t sunk in before.

I had come into some money from some investments and was meeting with a financial adviser. He recommended a non-profit and I was drawn to the idea because I have always believed in education even though I just barely finished high school myself.

The first gift I remember making was in response to the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980’s. I was a young dancer at the time and within a very short period lost three friends to the disease.

When I was little, my father was laid off from his job at the steel mill. Local groups organized a food pantry for all of the workers who had been laid off to help families obtain groceries. We greatly benefitted from this program, and it was so nice to see community members who didn’t personally know us working together to help out my father and his co-workers. From that day forward I said I would always give back.

It was Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” – you know, the part of the story in the Dog Pound where they take the dog out to be put down. I was 8 years old when I saw that movie. I went home and took my piggy bank money to my local animal shelter. That’s how I started giving, and I will never forget it.

Leave a Comment