Stories from Donors in the 2021 Burk Donor Survey on Why They Give

Many respondents in our annual Burk Donor Survey have been giving for decades, but most still vividly remember what inspired them to become donors. As you draft your next appeal, shape your next update, or craft a new thank you letter, their stories will remind you of the power of philanthropy and help you connect with your supporters on a deeper level.


In my early twenties, living on my own and under a very tight budget, I was walking the 16th Street Mall on my lunch hour. I had my last $5.00 in my pocket which had to get me to my next paycheck. Having had no breakfast, I was very hungry, so I headed for McDonald’s. I was approached by a middle-aged, homeless man who asked me for lunch money, so I gave him my $5.00. His face lit up, and his smile wiped away the hard edges on his face. He thanked me profusely. I watched him walk away and into the same McDonald’s I was headed to. As I sat in my office later, belly rumbling, I made a note to myself: find a way to add a few more dollars to my lunch budget from now on so that my first time helping someone doesn’t become my last!

A family was transitioning out of homelessness into their own home and a local agency reached out to the community to ask for donations to help the family get established. I donated towels and, when I dropped them off, I expected to do this anonymously. However, as I was leaving, someone came out and thanked me from the bottom of his heart and shared how much this meant to them. It made my day…and made me eager to give again.

A number of years ago it dawned on me that “all that I have is not actually mine”.  It belongs to the Lord and I am its steward. That new sensibility was the beginning of my life as a donor.

I entered recovery at AA at the age of 33. My deep gratitude, which I express through giving, continues to this day.

As a free white female growing up in the U.S. & traveling out of country for many years, it did not take much for me to realize how rich I was — rich in life choices, education, housing, food, & free speech, that is. That experience started me on the road to giving.

About forty years ago, I was living through a cold winter in a house with no insulation. The gas bill that month was more than $400 and I couldn’t pay it because, for the first time since I was thirteen years old, I was unemployed. A local group, Metropolitan Lutheran Ministries, helped many families that winter, including mine. Eventually I got a job, which later led to me starting my own company. Our family has been secure ever since, but I never forgot that kindness. As a result, I give whenever I can and will continue to do so in the future.

After my husband finished his military obligation during the Vietnam War, we went to Oklahoma State so he could complete his undergraduate degree. We had very little money and we were unprepared for the hot weather there. We rented an apartment in Stillwater but couldn’t afford to furnish it. In my effort to find a job to support us, I met a friend who offered me a teaching assistantship in the College of Home Economics. That same day, my friend and her husband visited us and saw that we had no air-conditioning. They left and returned thirty minutes later with a window air-conditioner and some chairs from their own home. Their kindness and generosity inspired me to become a donor.

In my early twenties, I invested in a restaurant business with my family. I worked and managed that restaurant for a couple of years until we realized we could no longer keep it profitable. We lost a lot of money. It was a heartbreaking experience and I thought to myself, “The money I lost would have been much better spent if I’d given it to charity”. I made a commitment then and there to give to charity whenever I could.

After retiring, I made out a will. Having no family heirs, I was faced with important decisions about my estate. I began making small monthly donations to organizations I respected but, at the same time, included a seven-figure gift in my will to my alma mater. Education made the good things in my life possible and I wanted others to experience that advantage too.

A tuition grant from my college made me want to give back. I started with $10/month, my goal being to repay the grant.  Once I had achieved that goal, I just kept going.

In the 1960’s, my dad needed open heart surgery to replace two deteriorated heart valves. Surgery had to be postponed for three weeks because there wasn’t enough O negative blood available. Even though I was O negative too, I was only fourteen at the time and too young to give blood. So, as an adult, I am a rather compulsive blood donor. I know that blood is not the same as cash, but to someone in need, all the money in the world cannot buy blood if it is not available.

Travelling around the world as a college student at the age of nineteen gave me a completely different perspective about the “haves and have nots”. That early exposure paved the way to serving on non-profit boards and giving because I felt I understood community need at a deeper level.

My dedication to philanthropy started early. I used to attend a YMCA summer camp as a child and the positive values instilled in me there eventually led me to start giving. I have been a lifetime donor ever since.

A brain injury after a near fatal car accident started me thinking about how uncertain life is. That’s when I decided to more regularly and consistently donate money and goods to non-profits.

My father passed away after a battle with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association gave my family some helpful suggestions during some of the most challenging phases of his disease. Now I give back by contributing to this wonderful organization.

A few years ago, a young bear came down from the hills around Glendale, CA looking for food. Animal rescue returned him to his natural habitat, but he kept coming back. After the third or fourth time, my husband and I heard the bear was to be euthanized because he would not stay in the wild. There was a public outcry because the bear hadn’t hurt anyone; he was just hungry. A wonderful organization called ‘Lions, Tigers, and Bears’ in Alpine, CA agreed to give the bear a permanent home. When we learned about the amazing work the organization was doing to provide care for large animals who had been abused, we knew we had found a place we could whole-heartedly support. (Note: The bear was named Meatball because he loved the Costco meatballs he found in trash cans.)

Several years ago I started a tradition. On Christmas afternoon after everything settles down, I sit down and give the majority of my yearly contributions to five to seven charities. It makes me feel good and thankful for all that I have.

A good friend started a company for women in need of legal aid. She pairs attorneys who wish to do pro bono work with women in need. No matter how dire my own situation, I will always donate to her beautiful non-profit. She once used my paltry $5 donation (small but a hardship for me because my unemployment benefits had run out and I had no health insurance) to inspire her team to appreciate all donations, no matter how small.  I am proud to support my friend and to give to others less fortunate than myself.

There were times in my life when money was pretty tight, and my food budget was really limited.  I still remember what it feels like to go to bed hungry, so I know how difficult it must be for families who live with this continuously. I think of this whenever I pack boxes at the local food bank.

Being a black female, I already faced obstacles, so scholarships removed many barriers and helped me cross the finish line in my educational journey. But while I succeeded, I had to watch many peers not finish and I knew that, without those scholarships, their story could have also been mine. So, after college, I started a scholarship to help support black students from New York City beat the odds and get their degrees. It is more crucial now than ever that money not be the determining factor in whether a black student graduates.

As a grad student in the early 1980’s, the local NPR station was my sole connection to the rest of the world; it and my two cats kept me sane through exams. After graduating, my career took me to many new cities and, everywhere I went, I found my local NPR station and wallowed in the familiarity of its national programs. I give to them now because there is no way I could repay what they did for me in those years.

I remember going to the library for the first time at age six or so. When the librarian explained that I could check out any book I wanted to, I looked into the seemingly cavernous room filled with miles of bookshelves and was simply awestruck at the thought of being able to read any book that I saw.  Over sixty years later, I can still recall that feeling and it shapes my philanthropy.

As a young boy, I was terrified of the images on the news of people who were suffering from polio and confined to iron lungs. I responded by getting a broomstick, some cardboard, some meat-wrapping paper from the butcher counter at the town grocery store, a mayonnaise jar, and some tape. I made a placard with ‘Give to the March of Dimes’ on it and I walked the downtown street (one block up, back on the other side) in my small hometown of 850 people every day collecting money. I was robbed one evening but an alert and kind man apprehended the thief, recovered the money, and added more to the pot himself. This inspired me even more. I kept this up for quite awhile, then proudly presented the money to the March of Dimes. Looking back, I can see how giving has always been integral to who I am.

As a young married man, I was attending college on the GI Bill, so my wife and I were seriously struggling with all the expenses of college and daily life. A friend of my wife’s Grandmother, who we did not know, learned of our situation and invited us to her home for afternoon tea. She asked a lot of polite questions and, as we left, she handed us an envelope. As soon as we could, we opened it and found $300 inside which, in 1962, was quite a large gift. That gift helped us get through a tough period. I decided then that I would pay it forward and that is why I am a donor today.

As a young person from a family of very modest means, I was always inspired by the commercial appeals for Project Hope ships I’d see on TV. In high school I would occasionally send them a donation whenever I had a few dollars. Then, when I graduated college, I sent $10 to Project Hope – a huge contribution at the time because I was unemployed and had only $20 to my name. I remember thinking at the time, “I wonder who else is out there giving half their net worth to charity”?  Ha!

I was an Eagle Scout who married a First Class Girl Scout. Together, we have been active Girl Scout leaders and volunteers for over fifty years. It’s just natural to give back to an organization that did us both an immense amount of good.  It shaped our belief in active civic involvement all our adult lives.

Before I retired in 2020, my daily drive home took me past the Denver Rescue Mission.  On particularly cold days (some well below freezing), I cringed when I saw the lines of homeless people waiting to be ushered in for (presumably) a warm meal and a bed for the night.  How can you not give when you see things like that?

I am a Vietnam vet who was condemned, not applauded for my service, given the political situation back then. I worked to put myself through college and, during those years, I was hungry a lot of the time. I needed help but never got any. It was a different time. The fact that I give now, and the giving choices I make today, are shaped by that experience.

A good friend of mine once spoke glowingly of a non-profit’s leader whom he knew very well. This person was the CEO of a shelter and meal program for poor and drug-addicted people. That conversation prompted me to begin giving regularly to that organization.

In my early working years, I kept my head down, saved and lived within my mean. At some point, I basically set everything on fire, bought my first house, new truck, new clothes, etc. It was like winning the lottery. But, shortly after doing all that, it was like, “That was cool, but there has to be something more”. So, now I give roughly 10% of my earnings to charity.

I grew up in the sixties amidst the Roe v Wade debate. It made me realize the importance of having an organization that could speak and work for me in ways that would not be possible for me as an individual. Their work inspires my giving today.

While traveling in Central America with my family, my sister and I were each given $3 to spend at a local fair. We kept half the money and gave the other half to our host’s housekeeper and her two-year-old son, so they could enjoy the fair during her four hours off on Sunday. We felt so warm and rich to be able to do this at the time. But, even though we were quite young, we knew enough to tell our parents what we had done so that the housekeeper would not be accused of stealing. That experience was an eye-opener for two thirteen-year-olds and it was my first experience as a donor.

I am an immigrant woman who was helped out by a fantastic woman who sponsored my graduate studies at Radford University. My later professional success is entirely because of her. That is why I give.

When I was in the 5th grade, it was right after WW II and I lived in an affluent community. A family of DPs (Displaced Persons) came to our town and I learned that they were living in a barn. I was outraged. Every Thursday I could buy my lunch at school instead of going home to eat. A hamburger and chips cost 25 cents, but a hotdog and chips cost only 15 cents. So, I devised a way to help Roland, the DP in my class. I bought the hotdog and saved a dime. When Roland and the other boys were playing basketball before class began, I ran onto the court, pretended to pick up the dime and handed it to Roland, saying, ‘Hey you dropped this.’ I was able to help without him being embarrassed or ashamed.

In the summer of 1961, when I was 6 years old, my father died. As a result of this tragic event, my mother, my sister and I were cast into poverty. Yet, despite this, my mom always kept an envelope with nickels, dimes, and quarters in it. Whenever anyone knocked at the door asking for a donation (something that was very common in those days), she gave them something from the envelope. I remember asking her two questions back then. The first was ‘Mommy, are we poor?’ (My sister and I were the only kids in our working class neighborhood who lived in an apartment, not a house, did not have a dad, and did not own a car.) My mom said we didn’t have much money, but we had love and she was going to make sure we would get a good education. She pointed out that it was lack of love and opportunity that was the real definition of poverty. My second question was, ‘Why do you give people money if we don’t have much ourselves?’ I will never forget her answer. ‘We don’t have very much money, but we have more than a lot of people. We always have enough to give at least a little bit to someone who has less.’ My mother’s love for us and her undaunted faith in teaching her children the importance of kindness and compassion for others, backed up with the act of giving a bit of what we clearly needed, was an early and powerful lesson. And one I have tried to emulate all my life.

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