About a decade and a half ago, I had the opportunity to work with one of northeast Wisconsin’s great philanthropists. This was a man whose wealth was significant, but his collective generosity far exceeded what you would ever expect for a man of his means.
I got to know this man late in his life while helping to administer his giving through a Donor Advised Fund (that’s what we do at places like the Door County Community Foundation). Each quarter he’d bring in an enormous stack of charitable solicitations and we’d talk about what he wanted to do. He’d inquire about different projects in the community. I’d quietly do some research on his behalf. He would ask me to encourage different nonprofits he was supporting to work together.
This good man was once a captain of industry and spent his career thinking deliberately about how to achieve his corporate goals. So it was perfectly natural for him to now focus that keen mind on making strategic choices to realize his philanthropic goals.
Obviously each of the individual charities knew of the exceptional depth of his giving to them. But almost no one had any idea of the sheer breadth of this man’s giving. This great philanthropist and friend of mine had me tell the nonprofits that they shouldn’t do anything out of the ordinary to recognize his gifts.
I loved him for that. And it drove me crazy.
I would try to persuade him that he could be such an inspiration for the community if would only allow us to celebrate him. But he’d poke me with his walking stick, smile at the passion of my youth, and insist that we get back to the business of philanthropy.
Now that I have reached middle age, I understand that my friend was a living embodiment of the old adage that your true character is revealed in what you choose to do when no one is watching. He didn’t want any accolades or need any public recognition. He was generous because he cared about the community in which he lived and had a deep desire to help those who were less fortunate than him.
I still love him for that. And it still drives me crazy.
Why are we so timid when it comes to talking about our philanthropy?
Over the years I have been doing this work, it seems as if our values as a society have become reversed. Conspicuous consumption has become not only acceptable, but desired and celebrated. Yet when it comes to our giving, the topic is verboten.
We are comfortable talking about our month-long stay at a villa in Tuscany, but we feel it’s somehow inappropriate to say we were major donors to the expansion of the Door County Medical Center. We proudly show everyone the new home we built overlooking the bay, but we think it’s bragging if we show them the rehearsal room our donations built at Birch Creek.
Now we don’t want people to feel awkward about enjoying the financial benefits of a lifetime of hard work. But neither should we be timid when talking about the times we’ve sacrificed some of those financial benefits for the betterment of our community.
The sad irony is that my friend the philanthropist chose to deny the world the opportunity to see the best, most beautiful part of his soul. The most noble things we will ever do are those which are the most selfless. Giving of ourselves and that which we have is a selfless act. It ennobles us, and inspires those around us.
My friend used to tell me that he didn’t want anybody to know his private business. I’d try to persuade him by saying he could be an example for others to follow. He could help make it acceptable, maybe even desirable, for people to “one up” each other not through buying more things, but by helping more people.
This good man had a wonderful mind, so we often would explore this issue – if only so he could enjoy debating with a young man who thought he knew more than he really did. But fundamentally, my friend the philanthropist wanted his privacy respected. Although he has long since left this world, I still honor him by withholding his name.
I sometimes wish I could talk with my friend just one more time if only to tell him the one thing that didn’t occur to me so many years ago. I’d say yes, if you let us celebrate your generosity, everyone will know your business. And as a result, everyone will know you to be a generous man.
Oh what a terrible reputation to have.
Of course, I’m sure that somewhere, as I write this, my old friend is still trying to poke me with his walking stick.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on April 28, 2011.