Wednesday, October 7, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: What Makes a Gift "Great"?




"Not what we give, but what we share--

For the gift without the giver is bare;

Who gives himself with his alms feeds three:

Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me."

James Russell Lowell





There are good gifts; there are better gifts; and there are Great Gifts. What distinguishes a Great Gift from an average or even wonderful gift? What converts a charitable gift into the "Great" category?  

Two very dear friends, Ryan Ponsford and Yale Levey, recently challenged me to ponder those questions. They shared some of their own musings on this topic and invited me to add my ideas to theirs.

Ryan and Yale are two of the biggest dreamers and doers I know. They continue to spearhead the Main Street Philanthropy work I began with them several years ago, and they are now developing an online platform to take MSP concepts to a vastly expanded audience, all with the mission of using philanthropy to unite a divided world.

Working with and building on Ryan and Yale's excellent thoughts on the subject, here is my answer to their query, What Makes a Gift "Great"?


A Great Gift is Transformative. It changes the heart and life of the giver.

A Great Gift is Impactful. It produces a measurable difference in the recipient person, cause, or organization.

A Great Gift is Compelling. It motivates others to make similar gifts.

A Great Gift is Fulfilling. It satisfies long-held and deeply-felt longings of the giver.

A Great Gift is Organic. It springs seamlessly from the life lessons and passions of the giver.

A Great Gift is Narrative. It expresses and reinforces the central storyline of the giver's personal experiences.

A Great Gift is Empowering. It leverages and multiplies the giver's unique skills, strengths, and capacity.

A Great Gift is Inspired. It flows from wisdom and personal guidance from a higher power.

A Great Gift is Integrated. It meshes with the giver's overall planning objectives and opportunities.

A Great Gift is Connective. It binds together the giver and the recipient person, cause, or organization.


As I pondered this subject, my memory went back to one of the greatest gifts I know, one made by Oseola McCarty to the University of Southern Mississippi. This is what I wrote several years ago under the title "Oseola McCarty: The Rest of the Story." As you read it, compare my list of qualities of a great gift with her giving experience.

Oseola McCarty, an African American washerwoman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, single-handedly changed the definition of philanthropy at the University of Southern Mississippi. Here's the inside story of her amazing donation.

[Personal note: I was a professor of business law at the University of Southern Mississippi in the mid-1980s and later was associated with USM Foundation's Estate Planning Advisory Board. I was also Vice-President and Trust Officer at Trustmark National Bank in the late 1980s, where I was acquainted with some of the participants in this story.]

In 1995, at the age of 87, Oseola McCarty had a problem. This simple, hardworking lady had saved and penny-pinched her way to an estate worth over $200,000 and she wasn't sure what to do with it. The tellers at Trustmark National Bank sent her to see Paul Laughlin, the bank's assistant vice-president and trust officer.

Listening to her story, Paul learned that Oseola had washed and ironed other people's clothes all her life for ten cents a pound until she "retired" at age 86 due to arthritis in her hands. She had never married and never had any children. Most of "her people" had passed away earlier, so she needed some advice on what to do with her life savings.

Paul, recognizing her lack of formal education, used a masterful approach to uncover her deeply-held passions. He took out 10 dimes and spread them on the coffee table in front of her. "Miss Oseola," he said, "show me with the dimes what you want to do with your money."

"Well," she began, picking up the first dime, "I've always believed in tithing, so this one's got to go to the church."

"And I've got two nieces and a nephew I want to help," she continued, picking up three more dimes. "These are for them." Then she hesitated.

"And what about the rest?" Paul queried.

She studied Paul as if to see if she could trust him, smiled nervously, took a deep breath, and said, "You know, I always wanted to be a teacher. But my auntie got sick when I was in the sixth grade, and she didn't have anybody to take care of her. I stopped going to school to tend her, and I was never able to go back. After she died, I was too far behind, so I just kept working, washing and ironing and saving my money. So, I never got to be a teacher."

Her eyes filled with tears. She paused and looked away, then composed herself and went on.    

"But I understand the college in town helps black kids become teachers. I want to help them."

 "You mean the University of Southern Mississippi?" Paul asked.

"Yes, that's the one," she replied.

"What do you know about the University of Southern Mississippi, Miss Oseola?"

"Actually, I've never even seen the place. It's too far to walk and I never owned a car. But I understand they help black kids become teachers. I'm too old to do it myself, but I'd like to help some of them become teachers."

Paul wisely recognized that she would have needs during the rest of her lifetime, so he helped her set up a charitable remainder trust. The fund provided income to her during her lifetime, then at her passing went to the University of Southern Mississippi to pay for scholarships for black students in education.

Paul also realized that sometimes, the story about a gift can be more valuable than the gift itself. He got her permission to tell the University about her donation.

News of that gift hit the University of Southern Mississippi and the town of Hattiesburg like a Category Five hurricane. The whole community was electrified! A lot of people with a whole lot more money than Oseola McCarty looked at themselves and asked, "Wow, if a local washerwoman can do something like that, what's wrong with me?"

Long before she died and her $150,000 gift passed to the University, there were millions of dollars in the Oseola McCarty Scholarship Fund, helping to fund scholarships for needy black students in education. Her gift changed hundreds of lives.

It changed her life too. This humble little lady finally saw with her own eyes the University of Southern Mississippi, where they awarded her the first honorary degree in the history of the school. She saw the whole country. She saw the White House-from the inside, where President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizen's Medal and scores of other humanitarian honors. Harvard University awarded her an honorary doctorate and she won the United Nations' coveted Avicenna Medal for educational commitment.

She later wrote a book filled with her simple, homespun wisdom. See a copy of the cover above.

Through it all, she retained her grace and humility. "I can't do everything," she said, "but I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do, I will do. I just wish I could do more."

Comparing Oseola's gift with my outline of what makes a gift great, it's easy to see that what she did was the epitome of GREATNESS! Bless you, Oseola, for setting such a marvelous example for so many.

And what about our own charitable gifts and donations? How do they measure up? I'm not talking about the dollar amount, because that doesn't matter. What makes a gift GREAT is not its size, but its character. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves that can help us evaluate our gifts and hopefully guide us to put more heart into our giving:

  • Does giving this gift change me?
  • Does it make a significant difference for the recipient?
  • Does it motivate others to make similar gifts?
  • Does it satisfy my own deep-seated yearnings?
  • Does it spring seamlessly from my passions?
  • Does it express the central storyline of my life?
  • Does it leverage my unique abilities?
  • Does it flow from divine guidance?
  • Is it in harmony with my overall planning?
  • Does it bind me with the recipient?

Wednesday, September 16, 2020



"A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others."  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk


Without a doubt, these are challenging times for teachers. Besides their role in imparting knowledge, teaching thinking skills, and assisting each child to become exceptional in his or her own way, this year they are playing a critical role in helping our world return to something close to normal. In this Wednesday Wisdom, I want to thank one of my most memorable teachers, and in doing so, express gratitude to millions of other teachers who daily wade into the deep waters of our children's education.  
I was profoundly blessed by many teachers and coaches in my 19 years of formal education. One who had the greatest impact was J.B. Varnell, my English teacher during my senior year of high school.  
Due to our family's tenuous financial situation, my attending college in the fall was heavily dependent on securing a scholarship. The key scholarship required that I write an essay about influential people in my life. I wrote the essay and asked Mr. Varnell if he would check the spelling and grammar. He took it and said he would review it and get back to me.
The next day, Mr. Varnell said, "Scott, I think you've done a pretty good job with this, but I see something that concerns me. I don't think I've done as good a job as I would like to have done in teaching you how to write for college. Why don't you come back after school and we'll work on your writing skills."  
That afternoon, I learned that he was not content to merely correct the spelling and grammar of my essay, or even to help me revise it. His plan was to give me an extended one-to-one tutorial on how to write at the college level. For the next week, we met every day before school, at lunch, and after school, while he instructed me on the finer points of expository writing. Then he sent me out on my own to rewrite the essay.  
What I did not appreciate at the time was that he was doing all this on his personal time, time when he could have been working on his own projects, hanging out in the teachers' lounge, or going home to be with his own family. There was no added pay for his service to me, no reward for him other than the joy of helping a needy student better prepare for the future.    
After I rewrote the essay, I brought it back and we reviewed it together. Mr. Varnell was beaming when he read the final version. It sharply highlighted my strengths and life experiences, making the case for why I deserved the scholarship.  
I submitted the essay and my application to the scholarship committee and a few weeks later I received some very good news: I was awarded the scholarship. It covered FULL TUITION for FOUR YEARS. Thank you, Mr. Varnell. What an amazing blessing you gave me!
But securing the scholarship was only the beginning of the impacts of Mr. Varnell's gift.  
When I went to college that fall, like all new students, I took a placement test to determine which freshman English class I would register for - remedial, average or advanced. Having attended a little Podunk high school in desolate Kirtland, New Mexico, I worried that I wouldn't test well and would be relegated to the remedial track, or what we students affectionately called "dumbbell English."  
To my surprise and thanks again to Mr. Varnell's tutelage, I tested into Advanced Freshman English. That turned out to be a major learning opportunity for me. It was primarily an intense and accelerated writing class taught by a full professor. The competition was extremely keen. At the end of the semester, the professor gave only one A in that class. It may have been on my report card, but I felt it really belonged to Mr. Varnell.  
A few years later I went to law school. I fully attribute my admission into law school, my eventual appointment as Managing Editor of the Brigham Young University Law Review, and my completion and publication of two professional scholarly articles during law school to that marvelous one-to-one tutorial I received in high school during those extra-curricular sessions with Mr. Varnell. His sacrifice on my behalf set the stage for my professional success. For me, his generosity was the gift that kept on giving.
* * * * *
It is interesting to me how life sometimes has a way of coming back around. In 1999, a few months after moving to Orlando, I got a telephone call from a young man named Steve Lee. I didn't know Steve, because he had been away at college since our arrival in Orlando, but I knew his parents from church.  
He said, "Hello, Mr. Farnsworth, this is Steve Lee. I am Dan and June Lee's son. I'm home for a few weeks on spring break."  
"Oh, nice to meet you," I said.  
"I understand, Mr. Farnsworth, that you are an attorney."  
"That's true," I replied.  
"I understand that attorneys know how to write fairly well."  
"We think we do, I guess."  
"Well, I need some help. I'm applying to medical school, and I have to submit an essay as part of my application. I've written an essay about why I want to go to medical school. I need to complete it during spring break. I wonder if you would be so kind as to check the spelling and grammar."  
A big lump came up in my throat. You already know who I was thinking about - J.B. Varnell. That was the same request I had made of him back in the spring of 1970: "Will you please check the spelling and grammar?"
Even though I was incredibly busy during the next two weeks, I could not merely check Steve Lee's spelling and grammar. Instead, Steve and I spent many hours together as I gave him pointers on how to create the best possible essay. By the time we finished, he had written an essay that we were both pleased for him to submit to the medical school admissions committee.  
A couple of months later, I received another phone call from Steve Lee. "Hi, Mr. Farnsworth, guess what? I've got great news. I've been accepted at the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. Thank you so much for your help with my application essay."  
Today, Dr. Steve Lee is a pain management specialist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. Dr. Lee completed his medical training at Washington University, then went on to perform an internship at Tufts University and a residency at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.  
As I said, these things have a way of coming back around. Now I am wondering who will be asking Dr. Steve Lee for his help with their application.
This wonderful thread of giving service and then paying it forward leads back to an unselfish high school English teacher in Kirtland, New Mexico, who was willing to take the time from his own busy life to tutor an unpolished student writer and equip him with the tools of success. Thank you, Mr. Varnell, for making such an enormous difference in my life. And thank you also to millions of other teachers who every day make such a huge difference in the lives of their young students.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: What You Know That Just Ain't So


"It ain't so much the things that people don't know that makes trouble in this world, as it is the things that people know that just ain't so."   
Mark Twain     


Marcie and I have a white Amazon Echo at our house that we mostly use to play our favorite music. Sometimes we use our music selections to send affectionate messages to each other.  

On the evening of our 45th anniversary a few weeks ago, Marcie wanted Alexa to play "You've Made Me So Very Happy." I was beaming at her tender sentiment.

"Alexa, play 'You Make Me Happy' by Chicago," she told the machine.

Alexa then announced a song we never heard of: "You Make Me Dance" by "Shades of Chicago." Clearly this was not what Marcie was looking for.

"Alexa, stop."

Marcie tried again, this time enunciating her instructions more sweetly and carefully: "Alexa, please play 'You Made Me So Happy' by Chicago."

Alexa proceeded to play a different song we never heard of, again with "happy" in the title and Chicago in the name of the group, but definitely not "You've Made Me So Very Happy."

"Alexa, stop!" Marcie quickly interjected.

"You tell her," she told me in frustration. "She listens better to you than to me. And it is by Chicago, right?"

"Yes," I replied. "I'm quite sure it is."  

I tried giving instructions, speaking slowly and clearly in my best "Alexa, I'm the boss here" voice. "Alexa, play 'You've Made Me So Very Happy' by Chicago."

Same result: strange song, strange group.

"Alexa, STOP!!!"

Now I too was irritated with Alexis' recalcitrance.  

"Why don't you look it up and play it on your iPad," I suggested to Marcie.

Within a few seconds she reported, "Here's the problem: It's 'You've Made Me So Very Happy' by Blood, Sweat & Tears, NOT by Chicago."

"Alexa, play 'You've Made Me So Very Happy' by Blood, Sweat & Tears."

Alexa then played the correct song. By then, unfortunately, the magical moment was gone, but it was fun to hear.

* * * * *

This little episode may hold a lesson for all of us.

It suggests that it might be helpful sometimes to ask ourselves, "Besides confusing Chicago with Blood, Sweat & Tears, are there other areas in my life in which I should allow for the possibility that what I 'know" perhaps 'just ain't so'"?

From my good friend Nancy Kline, the author of Time to Think, I have learned that all of us operate our lives on the basis of a wide collection of underlying assumptions (what we "know"). While most of them are true, some of them are not true (what "just ain't so") and can limit our ability to think clearly for ourselves and achieve the best results.  

On occasion, a bit of faulty information - such as who recorded "You've Made Me So Very Happy"- gets in the way of a positive outcome. Other times, we have drawn the wrong conclusions from an experience, either our own or someone else's. These can create untrue and limiting assumptions, which can block high-quality thinking and action.

Self-confidence is a useful character trait, but in too strong a dosage, it can injure us. Being TOO SURE, TOO COCKY, can be dangerous. By mixing a little shot of humility with our self-confidence, we can formulate a healthy antidote to knowing too much that just ain't so. With humility, we can question our assumptions from time to time and we can recognize those that might be untrue and might be inhibiting our best thinking.  

This simple act of questioning what we "know" to be true can create a burst of great thinking. I have learned that a wellspring of good ideas often lies just beneath an untrue limiting assumption. Powerful breakthroughs result from identifying and then thinking beyond "what we know that just ain't so."

And it will definitely improve our relationship with Alexa or Siri.