“We donated money to buy an old church and started the East Wayne Street Center. I think that was the first thing that really opened both of our eyes to poverty, with the Center operating in the middle of the inner city.
“I never had much growing up, but we always had enough to eat and do activities. Some people just didn’t have those opportunities, and still don’t.”
My grandmother and I sat on a couch in her living room in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, discussing her philanthropy throughout her lifetime. Having lived for less than a third of her life, I wanted to know how her giving and volunteering have been shaped. So I came to the place that I knew would have the answer, and a place where I spend much of my time.
I’ve worked at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy for a year and a half, and am also a student in the philanthropic studies master’s program. Throughout my time here, I’ve learned about the importance of connecting research and practice. So when the opportunity came to connect my family’s personal history, traditions, and outlook to the growing body of research in gender and philanthropy, I jumped at the opportunity.
Not too long ago, Andrea Pactor, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) interim director, and I were discussing high-net-worth women’s giving and what happens when these women’s husbands (I think all husbands – no wives yet) pass away. Oftentimes, for women of a certain age, the husbands were the breadwinners and earned the family’s wealth, which then affects the couple’s giving during their lifetimes and after the husband dies.
My own grandfather, CEO of a major insurance company, passed away in 2017. I pondered aloud to Andrea whether his influence would have impacted my grandmother’s giving and volunteering during their marriage and after he died. Thus, the spark came to interview her and dig into her own philosophy on giving and volunteering. I decided afterwards, I would take bits of the interview to Andrea and WPI and have the experts tell me if her responses were normal or atypical.
Currently in her mid-80s, my grandmother’s first lessons in giving came when she was a small child.
She grew up a farm in northern Indiana, and while her parents didn’t have a lot of money, they always tithed in church and gave when they could. My grandmother also volunteered during high school sporting events by helping set up food stands.
According to recent research on high-net-worth women donors’ philanthropy, high-net-worth women featured in the study learned philanthropic and charitable values early in their lives. Women in the study saw or heard about acts of kindness or giving small amounts of money to others because it was the right thing to do. One did not have to be wealthy to give back.*
My grandmother married my grandfather right after they graduated from college and they began tithing to their church.
After giving birth to my aunt the following year and my dad the year after that, my grandmother quit her job as a teacher and began volunteering during her spare time.
“I started volunteering frequently in the schools since I was a trained schoolteacher. I loved choosing my own schedule and helping out in a classroom.”
She also visited nursing homes to sing to and visit with senior citizens.
From that 2018 report, other high-net-worth women mentioned volunteering as a way they gave philanthropically when they were younger. Similarly to my grandmother, they were very deeply engaged in the community, even if it wasn’t writing large checks or establishing a family foundation. Research also finds that women often give to causes with which they have personal experience.
As her children grew older, my grandmother became involved with numerous charitable activities, including ones specifically related to social activism.
She and my grandfather were the impetus and main funders behind the East Wayne Street Center, an organization located in the inner city that serves individuals and families, empowering them to become self-sufficient.
She served as the leader for an inner city Girl Scout Troup for almost 10 years, taking these girls to places they had never been and showing them a world outside of Ft. Wayne. “I don’t know if we completed Girl Scout activities, but those girls definitely got a broader look at the outside world,” she recalled.
In her younger days, my grandmother picketed at homes of slum landlords, protesting unfair rent prices and conditions. She even went to a home of an employee at the company my grandfather worked for and told him to “treat tenants like you treat everyone else.”
My grandmother is an independent, strong-minded woman. When it comes to knowing what’s right, even if it’s not easy or controversial at that time, she does not take no for an answer. She forged her own path forward on the causes she became involved in, and my grandfather tacitly approved.
They influenced each other in their giving and volunteering, although she often encouraged him to pursue the “right” paths, including fighting for complete desegregation of Ft. Wayne schools.
“Helping open the East Wayne Street Center really opened our eyes to the issues that lower income families faced. Even though I didn’t have much growing up, we always had enough to eat and do other activities.
“In the long run, we wanted to help other people,” she said.
In a previous study on high-net-worth women’s philanthropy, 81.7 percent of high-net-worth women and 70.9 percent of high-net-worth men are motivated to donate because they are moved at how a gift can make a difference. Both of my grandparents recognized that a community center in the inner city was necessary, and moved to make the difference in the community as a result.
Both of my grandparents have/had a special place in their hearts for the arts community.
Early on, my grandmother acted in several plays at the Ft. Wayne Civic Theater. She’s been a supporter of the arts community for years, and has decorated her house with eclectic pieces of art. She’s also worked hard to foster an appreciation of the arts in her children and grandchildren, giving us each a piece of art for Christmas every year.
“Art is good for your spirit,” she remarked when I asked her about it.
Research has found that income matters in giving to the arts. Fewer than 10 percent of general population households give to the arts while 66.3 percent of high-net-worth households support arts causes.
While my grandmother volunteered and gave back in her own ways, her nonprofit board involvement was limited.
She was asked to serve on the board of North Central College, her alma mater in Naperville, Illinois and completed two terms of service there.
She continues to try to persuade her grandchildren to attend North Central, but alas, to no avail yet.
To formalize their giving, my grandparents created their own family foundation in the mid-1990s.
“We wanted to give more, bring in more ideas of organizations to give to, and also involve our kids and eventually, our grandkids,” she explained. “We hope that it’s a way to give in perpetuity as well.”
My grandmother and her five children currently serve as board members. When my grandfather was alive, they followed what he wanted to give to for the most part. Now, it’s become more of a majority decision. Eventually, my generation (their grandchildren) will serve on the board.
While the second and third generations are spread out across Indiana and the U.S., my grandmother emphasized that they wanted to keep the vast majority of the money in Ft. Wayne. “We know the people, we know the community, and we know the needs.”
According to this 2011 study, 66.3 percent of high-net-worth women and 67.9 percent of high-net-worth men (incomes over $200,000 or net worth over $1 million excluding primary residence) have family philanthropic traditions, such as making family-level decisions about charitable giving.
In the same report, high-net-worth individuals reported that the largest share of their giving (22.1 percent) goes to foundations, trusts, and funds, which fits with my grandparents utilizing their foundation to give back.
Shifting to more of her personal views on philanthropy and giving, my grandmother shared strong feelings about having her name listed on buildings, parks, etc.
“It’s hard, because I don’t like to show off, and I don’t donate for the recognition,” she explained.
Most of the items named after her include my grandfather’s name as well, although you will find an endowed chair at North Central College called the “Mimi Rolland Professor in the Fine Arts.”
She did agree to have the Center for Lincoln Research named after her and my grandfather (a gift given after he passed away, but one that he was passionate about – keeping Abraham Lincoln’s letters and documents in Ft. Wayne).
However, she only agreed because of the recognition that their gift and name on the center, located at the Allen County Public Library, might encourage others to give. “The minister at our church stated that if people know you’re giving that money, it encourages others to give. That’s why I decided to include the name on the center.”
According to René Bekkers, Ph.D., and Pamala Wiepking, Ph.D., when individuals see others give or hear about others’ donations, it may inspire them to give. “When you see other people give, it sets an example of what you can do with your money. It’s important to have a culture of philanthropy, where people open discuss their donations. That inspires others to do the same,” Wiepking explained.
My grandmother also has strong opinions about community involvement.
“When I spoke to one wealthy, younger woman once, she told me that she had nothing to do in the community.
“My response was to take a deeper look at it. There are hundreds of things to do and you can choose. You’re lucky to have that choice, because you don’t have to work full-time.
“I appreciate the people who give and volunteer, because they understand the importance of the community they’re in.”
According to the 2011 study previously mentioned, over 86.7 percent of high-net-worth women and 77.7 percent of men volunteer. My grandmother’s propensity to volunteer and to give back aligns with many other high-net-worth women’s behaviors.
Finally, we touched on legacy.
She was hesitant at first to talk about it, but ultimately stated that it was her wish that she and my grandfather would serve as role models for her children and grandchildren. “It doesn’t matter what the amount of money given is, but I hope that my kids and grandkids are continually aware of the needs of the individuals around them.
“I think they are, and that’s good for me.”
Through this exercise, I took a deep dive into my family’s history, and learned not only about my grandmother, but about the benefits of translating research to practice. I believe that we learn a lot when we cross the bridge between the two, and those lessons can help inform us about our personal and professional experiences.
I regret not interviewing my grandfather about these topics before he died, although I am lucky that a small book about him exists to reflect on what he deemed important and why he acted philanthropically in the ways that he did.
So, I encourage you to take this journey with your own relatives. Find out their philosophy on philanthropy, giving, volunteering. Every day, members of the Silent Generation (born in the late 1920s to early 1940s) pass away. While some of their deep knowledge and experiences are added to the annals of history, we can miss the opportunity to learn and discover more if we don’t take the time to ask.
Not only can you uncover fascinating life insights and experiences, you can actively apply research to practice and discover why your relatives acted in the way they did. I went to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute website and dove into the research reports (which are all publicly available) from there.
Working through my grandmother’s interview and diving into WPI’s research has given me new insights, as well as a greater appreciation for everything my grandparents have done and a greater understanding as to why they did it.
Follow these steps with your own family members, and discover what philanthropy means to them and how it has helped shape you.
*My grandmother has not given a large gift to specific girls’ or woman’s causes; however, this finding applies to all high-net-worth women.