Philanthropy by average Joes
Not every one has to be a Bill Gates to grow their money to help others.
After raising six children in their Akron, Ohio, home, Charles and Mary Booth didn't have a lot of cash left over for favorite charities, such as the YMCA where Charles learned to swim in the 1930s.Skip to next paragraph
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But that didn't stop this retired banker and his wife from carving out a legacy that's sure to impact lives in Akron for generations to come. What began as a $5,000 gift to the Akron Community Foundation almost 20 years ago has grown to "considerably more than that," Mr. Booth says, thanks to careful planning and the power of leveraged donations.
"We never had the kind of money that Bill Gates or Warren Buffet have," Mr. Booth says, referring to the world's richest men, whose philanthropic moves dominated headlines earlier this summer. Still, he says, "we had a little more breathing room" after the children were grown. Now the whole family gives to the fund regularly, including at birthdays in lieu of presents, at the parents' request. Interest income goes to cash-poor nonprofits in the area. Among their favorites are the YMCA and Family Services of Akron, where Mary once led a life-skills class for single parents.
Philanthropic legacies are not an exclusive province of billionaires with money to burn. Others have learned creative techniques to leverage time, talent, and treasure – not just their own, but that of other donors as well – in ways that make sure their deepest personal values produce an impact long after they're gone.
To be sure, having substantial assets makes the process of creating a legacy easier, but even that is no guarantee of success, according to Bruce Bigelow, founding partner of Charitable Development Consulting in Frederick, Md. Instead, he says, members of the middle class can learn from givers big and small who figured out well in advance what they wanted to have happen after they die.
"Leaving a legacy is really different from responding to a crisis," Mr. Bigelow says, yet not all donors recognize the distinction. Designers of a legacy need to look long-term, beyond immediate relief efforts, he says, and ask, "How do I want the world to be different when I'm not here [as a result] of what I did? What do I really care about?" For those with limited means, he says, effectiveness usually means teaming up strategically with a solid organization.
"Maybe Bill Gates or [investor and philanthropist] George Soros can create institutions that weren't there before," Bigelow says. "But most people can't do that" on a scale that will make a lasting impact.
As an example, Bigelow points to his late father, Ernest Bigelow. At his 50th reunion from Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, he wanted to make a special gift, but couldn't afford much after a lifelong career as a Presbyterian minister. So he committed $15,000 – "it may as well have been Bill Gates's billions" it was such a whopping sum for him, Bigelow says – to a pooled income fund at the school. Invested together with a "pool" of other donations, the principal would generate much-needed income until his death, at which point the interest generated would begin funding scholarships for chemistry and philosophy majors. Over 17 years, the principal grew to about $24,000 – enough to generate scholarships today in the range of $1,000 per year.
People with more funds to spare are also demonstrating the principle of amplifying one's legacy through teamwork.