The First Time I Gave

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.


Showing 5 comments
  • Lynn Wiliams

    Ok, that made me cry! In the busy hustle and bustle of December giving, thanks for the amazing reminder of what my job is really about!

  • Tom Struthers

    Thanks for this story of how a spark of kindness can ignite a life filled with purpose.
    May we kindle many more!

  • Pat Lee

    The incident that sparks the desire to give to help those in need is different for each of us. Thanks for reminding us how strong a memory that first experience has. I love the idea of asking this question as a way to learn more about what motivates each of those people who have selected our organization as a beneficiary of their philanthropy.

  • Veronica Tellez

    What a beautiful story! He was so confident in giving even with the scarcity and other family members. I wonder if the other children believed it was the right thing to do too; I can see innocent children being like that. It really does pinpoint the core of the philanthropic feeling, possibly the root of where it comes from in the basis of survival. I would be very interested in hearing other stories of first times. I also wonder if there are other people who can’t remember their first time, like with simple givings in church or to the Salvation Army Santa. Various fundraisers on the internet that you can easily donate to might make this memory more fuzzy too. I believe my very first experience might have been one of these, but I also experienced a time as an adult where I more consciously gave to an organization I felt more strongly about, Doctors Without Borders to be specific, which was definitely a memorable experience. Thank you.

  • Ciera S Dantzler

    Reading this blog post three years later has given me such hope to donate for a great cause. Words cannot express how much your story has enlightened me. You have given me a better understanding of what it feels like to live and give with a purpose for a good purpose. I say that because so many people give for the wrong reasons. You gave because you knew what it felt like to struggle before. You knew what it felt like to stack or starve. Just because of your experience, it has given me hope to stay in my career and it also gave me clarity about being a human being and caring for others in general.

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