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?

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