Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Osceola McCarty: The Rest of the Story


Osceola McCarty, a black 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-1980’s and later was associated with the U.S.M. Foundation’s Estate Planning Advisory Board. I was vice-president and trust officer at Trustmark National Bank in the late 1980’s, where I was acquainted with some of the participants in these events.]

In 1995, at the age of 87, Osceola 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 Osceola had washed and ironed other people’s clothes all her life 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 Osceola,” 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 Osceola?”

“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 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 5 hurricane. The whole community was electrified! A lot of people with a lot more money than Osceola McCarty looked at themselves and asked, “Wow, if a black 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 Osceola 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.

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 wish I could do more."

* * *

From this amazing story, we can recognize at least four powerful principles relevant to the world of charitable giving.

1) Every meaningful donation begins with a conversation.

2) If we listen attentively to the donor's story, we can discover their passions, why they want to give.

3) Once we understand the “why” of giving, it’s easy to figure out the “how.” 

4) Sometimes the story about a gift is more valuable than the gift itself.

Our goal at SunBridge is to increase generational understanding and philanthropic giving by providing advisors and nonprofit organizations appropriate and enduring tools to keep their clients and donors close. We designed The Priceless Conversation process to provide  a toolkit that, when thoughtfully presented and used, can help deepen the relationship between clients and their families, and between donors and the organizations they support and the causes they care about.

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