Philanthropy and The Power of Parents

It’s that time again when I get to revel in the stories from donors about what inspired them to start giving. So far, more than 16,000 active American donors have participated in The 2021 Burk Donor Survey, which is investigating how the pandemic and other major events of 2020 may shape their giving going forward.

My colleagues and I at Cygnus have been conducting this annual survey since 2009, and one of my favorite questions asks respondents to tell us about the first time they gave or a point in their lives that shaped their philanthropy. Their stories are as individual as the people who tell them, of course, but one of the prominent themes is the influence that parents have on their children’s commitment to philanthropy.

Here are some of their stories for you to enjoy. I’ll publish more each week as long as this survey is active. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


My dad came home from work one Christmas Eve and shared that he had learned of a young family with a baby who had no food. Mom immediately turned off the burner under our dinner. We drove to the grocery store and bought groceries. Dad added a toy to our purchases because “every baby should have a toy at Christmas”. That was my introduction to philanthropy.

When I was a child, my parents let me be a runner at a public TV pledge drive phone room. There are many things about the experience I remember but a highlight was hanging out with Carol Channing backstage. That experience turned me into a donor and a volunteer at a young age, and I have even become an on-air personality at non-profit radio/TV stations.

My mom’s sister had nine children and an alcoholic husband. I remember my mom always giving them hand-me-downs, buying them school clothes, making sure each child had a Christmas present or taking my aunt shopping for groceries. My mom would also take my aunt to pay her utility bill in person because otherwise her husband would take the money and drink it away. We weren’t rich (we were fine and never went hungry) but I know it was a stretch sometimes to be able to help them. So my mother’s example taught me that giving is just the right thing to do, even if you don’t have a lot.

I’ll never forget my dad scraping together enough money to get two tickets in the nosebleed section so I could see Natalia Makarova dance. Then, after my dad died, my mom worked to pay for dance lessons when I was 15. This is what makes me an ardent supporter of music, ballet and dance today.

As a child I was given an allowance. My Mom expected me to save some, share some, and enjoy some. So I did and that philosophy has carried over into my adult life.

My parents encouraged me to share what I had with those that had less. I collected dolls as a youngster and eventually had so many (about fifty I think), my parents suggested that I choose  my three favorite ones to keep and donate the rest. I made my choice, sorted out their clothes from all the rest, and then Mom made sure the clothes were in good condition. Once that was done she and I made additional clothes for the dolls that didn’t have at least three sets plus we added coats and hats or buntings. Mum also made blankets for the baby dolls. Then we both went to the five and dime and I picked out shoes and socks and whatever else was needed to fill out the dolls’ wardrobes. Finally, we took everything to a charity home. The home has been closed now for many years and I have moved away from the area. But, this experience was the moment when giving became an ingrained part of my life.

My mom worked in inner city Detroit with young girls until she was in her late 80’s.  We convinced her to stop because she developed dementia and we were afraid for her safety.  She always said, ‘The Lord will provide.’  My dad always said, ‘ Mary, my check book provided….it wasn’t the Lord.’  My mom would put the bite on many of his business friends and my dad said even that cost him money since he would then have to support their wives’ causes. She won the volunteer of the year award for her county when she was in her 80’s.

My father was personally ‘tight,’ but quite generous when it came to giving to his church, and other causes he admired. It was probably none of his business, but I recall him saying that So-and-So could afford to give more to the church and as part of his participation in the church fundraising group, he TOLD THE PERSON THAT! I found that amusing — and I guess, inspiring.

When I was young, my father took me with him to deliver a Thanksgiving basket to an impoverished family in Rochester NY. We climbed a long rickety staircase to a tiny apartment. It was cold and dark. When he placed the basket on the table in a tiny space that served as their kitchen, I saw several small faces peek out from adjacent doors. Later, Dad told me there were ten people living in that small space.

My earliest memory of philanthropy was mother taking me on her Meals-On-Wheels shifts when I was in pre-school.  My grandfather also took me, as a small child, on his volunteer shifts when he read to the blind after he retired from a career in military service.  Voluntarism is a value that was instilled in me by my family from a young age.

My grandfather was active in the Red Cross in the 50s and 60s and my dad was a volunteer fireman and a local volunteer in many organizations. I honestly thought that everyone gave back to the community like my family did. Therefore, I was always a volunteer and when I started earning money I also started giving.

Despite living hand-to-mouth, my parents gave small amounts in church on Sundays, and my father visited people who were unable to attend services. I saw my father sacrifice himself to make sure I and my siblings could get a good education. Their example taught me that service and charitable giving are good ways to show my love for my fellow human beings.

My Mom used to donate to dozens of charities when I was growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money so it was usually small amounts, just $10 to $20 to each. But I remember the chart she made each year with the name of the charity and dollar amount and check number. The chart was on loose leaf paper right next to the phone and, as the year went on, she would often have to add extra pages as she gave to more charities. And I also remember the large volume of charitable mailings and phone calls she would receive. I’ve never met anyone that received more mail than she! She was always diligent about doing research to make sure the donations were going to charities that reflected her values and would use the money wisely. I sometimes think about her sitting down with her check book, her chart and her stack of mail when with a touch of a button I can donate to a favorite charity for a year!

My dad was laid off when I was in the third grade. We had to rely on government cheese (remember that?) and my mom buying dented cans of vegetables from the back of a tavern in order to make ends meet and try not to lose our house. That experience made me want to give back so that others had the basics like food, clothing and housing.  That’s why I give.

My mother used to write small checks to charities. She called it, “Thank God money”.

My father grew up with nothing during the depression and he never forgot the kindness of others who helped him to survive. As an adult, he gave anonymously to anyone who needed help. The tradition continues. Now, during December, my husband and I put $100 dollar bills into envelopes and hand them out to random people that we meet when we run our errands.

My parents were my foremost influencers. My father was a rural doctor who eventually got elected to public office, serving with wisdom and integrity for many years. My mother was a nurse who dedicated her life to the many roles that women take on in home and community. My parents opened our home to everyone and I got to witness them helping people find jobs and offering whatever assistance was needed. Dad and Mom weren’t wealthy but they were rich in charity. I will be eternally grateful for what they taught us – that love is kind and that helping and giving to others makes us happier and more fulfilled in return. God bless their beautiful souls!

My father was a minister. His actual paycheck was very minimal because we lived in the parsonage and had all house expenses paid by the church. In the mid-70s his weekly check was $175. I remember him sitting down every Sunday morning and writing a check to the church for $17.50 – his weekly tithe of 10%.

My dad worked seven days a week to provide for his large family.  He always made his contribution to church first.  After the bills were paid, he also gave to other organizations as he could afford.  He also worked with charities to help others.  I have always followed his example to give when I can.

I have two nieces who were not talking to each other. I told them about my DAF (donor-advised fund) and said I wanted them to make a donation of $250 to a charity of their choice. I also said that they could make only one gift and that they would have to work together to identify the cause. That happened to be the year when Princess Diana died, so they decided to give it to her fund. The exercise got them talking to each other again and it introduced them to the idea of philanthropy.

My family has a history of charitable giving. My mother in particular believed in tithing 10%- not just to religious projects but also to charities. She stuck to that throughout her life.  As a teen, I didn’t understand why my mom always said that if she won the lottery she’d give most of it away to charity. Now, when I see all the issues we are facing around the world, I understand why she felt that way. She was very dedicated to caring for others and our world and she really lived that through her giving, despite being a single parent and public school teacher whose salary did not reflect her two Master’s degrees.

Some of my family were refugees and, one generation back, everyone was an immigrant. That ancestry makes me more open to supporting groups that help refugees and immigrants. I was especially inspired to give early in life when, in 1937, my father turned to a charitable organization for help in getting his younger brother released from a hold-up at Ellis Island.

Growing up in the rural west, there was little extra money to give but my mother gave time and money to the local library. Many years later she explained that she learned to read English by going to the library.

After my Dad lost his job, we were broke for all intents and purposes. My mother went to the school principal, Sister Mary Francella, who managed to find a way to keep us in a catholic school. I had just turned ten and can still remember Christmas eve that year. There was no Christmas tree in the house and very little food in the fridge. I laid in bed and prayed for something to happen. My Godfather, who worked at the Christmas tree lot for the Knights of Columbus, showed up the next morning with a tree; my Godmother and my Dad’s sisters brought food. Christmas turned out all right after all.

My family has always considered giving back to be an essential component of being a human being and member of a community.

My dad and mom have always emphasized the importance of giving what you can. Dad said he ‘spent 25 years learning, 25 years earning and is now spending 25 years giving back.’

Brought up in Moshi, Tanzania, I have vivid memories of my father building water generators in his home to provide clean water to the community. Water, especially clean water, was scarce. One day, as I was coming back home on my bike, I noticed a long line of people with cans and buckets heading in the direction of my home.  Curious about what was happening, I slowly followed this line and discovered that people were filling up their water containers at my house, thanks to what my father had built. To this day, I get very emotional thinking about those people whose lives were made better thanks to the effort of a single man.

My seven children (now grown) set the example for me. They are deeply involved in giving back to causes which reflect their passions – the environment, child protection, food scarcity, human rights, etc. My kids have been my best teachers.

Showing 2 comments
  • Betsy Santarlasci

    This is so timely. I am working with a few donor families who are giving inter-generationally.

  • graham

    Wonderful stories! Perhaps goes to prove that children learn their most important lessons more by example than by words.

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