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Asking and Giving: The Twin Pillars of Philanthropy

Asking and Giving: The Twin Pillars of PhilanthropyI’ve met few who relish the idea of asking for a gift. Not many queue up to solicit. It takes practice and discipline. I find, however, that once they secure their first gift and taste victory, you can’t hold solicitors back. They practically lust for the call. I’ll give an example shortly.

By the same token, I’ve met countless people who relish the act of giving, individuals for whom philanthropy becomes addictive. The exhilaration they feel for paying back, for helping those less fortunate, permeates the air.

In my book,The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick: Sizing Up the Attributes Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Cultivate to Secure Major Gifts, I speak at length about asking and giving. Here, let me offer telling examples of two individuals who embody both ends of the spectrum.

First Taste of Victory

When we recruited Martha Firestone Ford to serve on the board of Ford Hospital in Detroit, she made her position clear. “I’d be proud to serve on the board. And I’ll make a large gift. But I won’t make calls. Especially, I won’t call on any of my friends. Am I perfectly clear?”

“Of course, Martha,” I said. I could have pointed out that all board members are expected to solicit, but with someone like Martha, you tend to make an exception.

Then something happened to change all that.

There was a key prospect no one on the board knew. No one but Martha. She and Fred are close friends.

When we ask Martha to contact Fred, she threatens to resign from the board. We convince her she won’t have to ask for a gift. We just want her make the appointment. With great reluctance, she agrees.

There we are. Colette Murray, vice president at the time, Martha, Fred, and yours truly.

Colette and I are sitting at Fred’s desk. Martha is sitting against the wall fifteen feet away. Hands crossed. Lips tight. A scowl on her face.

Colette is describing the need. The urgency. She is selling the dream, speaking of all the lives at stake. I notice that Martha’s chair is slowly moving to Fred’s desk. Just at the point when Colette is about to ask for the gift, Martha interrupts her.

“Fred, as a personal favor, I’d like you to give $2 million,” she says. Martha actually asked. She got caught in the dream.

“Of course, Martha, I will,” says Fred, just like that (I wish we had asked for more!). After that meeting, Martha couldn’t resist. She wanted to call on everyone.

In much the same way, Harlan Swift, Sr., came to understand what it’s like to be a joyous asker. He was president of the Erie County Bank and the chair of one of our campaigns in Buffalo.

“I always felt the importance of giving,” Harlan told me. “But I never really understood the joy of asking. Not until I got out there and did it. Before I wasn’t eager about it. Now I know my asking is as important as my giving.

“I don’t wake up in the morning and think ‘What fun, I’ll be fundraising today!’ But I will tell you I’ve actually come to enjoy it.”

Martha and Harlan are only two examples of hundreds I could give you.

Give and Feel the Glow

I’m sitting in the living room of Marianne McDonald of Rancho Santa Fe, California. She’s telling me of the joy giving brings her.

“I tell people I call on that I hope they’ll feel the same exhilaration I do when they make a gift,” says Marianne. “It lifts my spirits.”

She mentions a gift she made to honor her father. “The day I decided to make that gift I couldn’t eat, couldn’t talk to anyone I was so excited.

“When I went to bed I couldn’t sleep a wink. I kept thinking, Dad, you’re going to be so proud. In the morning, I got out of bed and saw myself in the mirror. I practically shouted, ‘Marianne, you’re one hell of a lady.’”

Marianne isn’t alone. Almost all donors feel the same joy. You will, too, for as a fundraiser you know the importance of making your own gift.

Let me tell you about Edwin Whitehead. From childhood, he was known as Jack. “I never gave any money away,” he tells me. “Not a penny.

“One day I went to my attorney to do some estate planning. During the course of our conversation he asked if I knew how much I was worth. I told my attorney I had no idea. I said we were comfortable.”

Several years later Jack sells his company Technicon to Revlon for $400 million (indeed he was comfortable!).

“My attorney says to me, ‘Jack, I’ve been your personal and corporate attorney for years. You’re now one of the wealthiest people in the country. You’ve never given away a penny in your life. Now that you have all this money it’s time to start giving some away. And, actually, there could be a tax advantage.’

“So, yes, I decided I’d start giving. But I’m a businessman, you know, and you don’t just start giving money away—you have to think about it and make a plan.

“I took a sheet of paper and drew a line down the middle. On one side, I penciled in the six organizations I was interested in and where I might make a gift. On the other column I listed the reasons I thought I should give to them.

“After about a week of drawing lines and thinking, one organization stood out the most. That’s it, I said, that’s where I’m going to make my gift.

“I went to my desk, picked up a pen, and wrote a check. For $100. It felt good. So I went to the second organization on my list and I also sent a check for $100. It was like the top of my head was spinning off. I never knew how good it could feel to give money away.”

Well, Jack continued giving and increased the amounts a bit. To Duke University he gave $10 million. To MIT $120 million (you’ve no doubt heard of the Whitehead Institute). Other oversized gifts followed.

David Baltimore, the Nobel laureate who was the Whitehead Institute's first director, said this: "Jack was an extraordinary man who started with little, built an enormous fortune, and then dedicated himself to using it in an imaginative and personal way that made a major contribution to biomedical research.”

Like Jack and Marianne, you’ll find it’s impossible to give without feeling the glow and the exhilaration of helping to changes the lives of others.

Asking and Giving: The Twin Pillars of PhilanthropyJerold Panas is author of The Fundraiser’s Measuring Stick, Asking, The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards, and Mega Gifts.

Topics: Fundraising