About 25 years ago, when I was just getting started in my development career, I learned about a non-profit organization that received a $1 million donation from a benefactor who had no previous giving history with that particular charity. I remember thinking: How could this possibly be?
Fundraising experts observe that major gifts typically spring from donors who have a long affiliation with an institution, including a regular and sustained track record of giving. So, in this instance, what led the donor to make such a significant gift out of the blue? Did the donor have an epiphany? Did he or she come into a windfall? Had they intended to make this gift all along and finally got around to doing it? What prompts someone to wake up one day and choose to give $1 million, or $100,000 or $1,000 to an organization with which they have had limited association? For years I have been intrigued by gifts of this nature that seemingly arise from thin air.
Recently, I gained new insight into unexpected acts of philanthropy. A few months ago an alumnus who had no prior charitable history with Saint John's decided to donate $1.5 million to SJU. In this particular case, the gift was made in honor of John Gagliardi and the donor asked to remain anonymous. In making the donation, the benefactor stated: "If anyone asks, tell them that it's from a player who was inspired by him at a very young age."
So, what have I learned from this experience? Many things. First, it reinforces my belief that people, by their very nature, are extraordinarily generous. They want to give; they want to make a difference; they want to improve lives. Second, people give to people. In this case, the donor wanted to honor a man he deeply respected -- John Gagliardi. Third, gifts don't just fall from the sky. They sprout from seeds that were sown many years ago, and it's reassuring to know that the seeds we sow today will be harvested a generation from now. Lastly, patience, persistence and faith are a fundraiser's best friends. Just because someone hasn't given in the past, doesn't mean that they won't make a gift in the future. In many cases, it is simply that the person is busy raising a family, building a company or supporting other charities -- a church, a social service agency, a foreign mission. In fact, in many instances, the passage of time is an ally.
As we grow older we tend to think more about the people and places that have had a positive impact on our lives, and our desire to pay it forward -- to leave a legacy -- becomes more pronounced with each passing day. In short, it just feels good. After all, there is eternal truth and wisdom to the proverb: "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
[Editor's note: For an inspiring video on one student's return to campus after decades of absence, please check out this link.]