“My most satisfying donation . . .”

“So you’ve made hundreds of charitable gifts. Some have been very large. May I ask, what’s been the most satisfying gift you have ever made?”

We were seated in his living room, with a scenic view of the ocean, in a grand house that showcased original works of major Canadian artists, on grounds protected by a gate and a guard.

We had completed the formal interview (for which I was sent by a client as part of a pre-campaign study), and it was time for me to leave. But I slipped in this one final question. I didn’t wait long. He didn’t hesitate.

“That’s easy,” he said. “I paid for the education of John Doe.” Only he didn’t say “John Doe” – he named a now-famous Canadian musician. The benefactor told me that when the musician was young he displayed tremendous talent and potential, but the circumstances and very limited means of the family made it unlikely that talent would be developed. So he paid for music training and for university.

I asked why that particular gift was satisfying. I expected to hear about the fame, the musical awards, and the professional accomplishments, and perhaps the gratitude the musician has demonstrated towards the donor. It was none of those. Or rather, it was beyond all those: what was rewarding to the donor was the volunteer work the musician does with children, and the many initiatives to engage children in music that he has supported during his career.

“He’s helping others. He’s giving it back.” said the donor. “That is very satisfying.”

I think of that conversation often. The lesson is clear: even to a man whose name is attached to buildings and academic chairs and research grants, and who is on many wannabe prospect lists, the satisfaction comes from seeing results in human lives, and doubly so when those results reflect the same values that provoked the gift in the first place.

That’s a happy donor – and someone who’s likely to want to feel that again.

-- Larry Matthews