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What Motivates Charitable Donations


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

For many people of faith, Christmas is the season of giving, and thanks to the rules of the IRS, the season extends for a week beyond. The last two days of the year are often the biggest for charitable donations, but that's just the when.

The why can include, as mentioned, religious tradition. Surveys find we donate to help cure or treat diseases that have touched our lives, to support our own ethnic groups and, of course, to favorite causes.

Some people give to large organizations, others to someone on the street. Others give anonymously.

What's the story behind your donation? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we continue our conversations with people of diverse backgrounds on how things changed in 2010. Today, gay men and lesbians.

But first, charitable giving, and we start with a very unusual story. Ted Gup joins us from a studio at Emerson College in Boston. He's the author of "A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness and a Trove of Letters Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression." And thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. TED GUP (Author, "A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness and a Trove of Letters Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And your story starts, I guess, with that trove of letters in your mother's attic in Kennebunk, Maine.

Mr. GUP: Yes. She gave me an old suitcase on her 80th birthday and didn't know what was in it. And when I opened it up, there were hundreds of letters, all of them dated December, 1933, and 150 canceled checks, all of them for $5 and all of them signed B. Virdot, a name which meant nothing to me.

And it was only when I found a front-page story from December '33 from the Canton Repository in Canton, Ohio, that I could put together what had happened, that this was an anonymous donor named B. Virdot, who had taken out an ad in the paper the week before Christmas '33 in Canton, Ohio, offering to help 150 families with $5.

And the B. Virdot name was a combination of his three daughters: Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy. For 75 years, it was a mystery who - what his true identity was or the identities of those who wrote to him. And that's what was in the suitcase.

CONAN: And it turned out to be your grandfather was B. Virdot.

Mr. GUP: B. Virdot was Sam Stone, my grandfather.

CONAN: And it turned out he had a story, as well. We'll get to that in just a minute. But what motivated him to give $5 to 150 different people?

Mr. GUP: Well, I think first of all, you know, $5 back then was between $80 and $100 today, and it was more money than most people in my hometown of Canton had seen in memory.

Unemployment was 50 percent, that's the estimate, back then in my hometown. And, you know, every day on his way to work, he had a little clothing store, and every day, he'd pass by misery.

And he was a man of compassion. And I don't think that he could stand walking by and not doing anything about it. And so he devised this elaborate scheme to take out an ad in the paper and make this offer, and he clearly identified with the down and out.

He'd worked in a coal mine. He'd washed soda bottles with an acid that ate his fingertips. He knew what it was to be without.

CONAN: And so $5 apiece to 150 families, and the letters - some of them printed in an article that was in the New York Times so heartbreaking.

Mr. GUP: They are heartbreaking, and they're very candid. You know, in the ad, he promised no one would ever know his identity or the identity of the people that wrote the letters. So the letters in the book are accompanied by releases from their descendants to honor his wish and theirs. But they are indeed heartbreaking.

CONAN: As you went through these letters, you were trying to find evidence for the book that you wrote about what effect these gifts may have had in people's lives. I just wanted to ask: What did you find?

Mr. GUP: Well, let me give you an example. Edith May(ph), she wrote about how cold it was on the farm that they had outside of town. And, you know, her letter was - let me just read to you how it ends because it really sort of says it all.

The letter ends: And oh my, I know what it is to be hungry and cold. We suffered so last winter, and this one is worse. Please do help me. My husband don't know I am writing, and I haven't even a stamp, but I'm going to beg the mailman to post this for me. Obliged, Ms. Edith May.

And that letter was delivered without a stamp and found its way into the suitcase. Now, I tracked down her daughter, Felice(ph), whose fourth birthday it was two years before that Christmas, and she remembers it so well because it was the only time they left the farm, went into town, saw the bright lights of Christmas.

And her mother took her to a five and dime and treated her to a little wooden horse with a pull-string, which became her favorite toy, indeed her only store-bought toy as a child, and she in the midst of her conversation said: You know, I never understood how we could afford, in the depths of the Depression, to leave the farm, go into town and buy that toy horse.

And she said: Now I understand. It was your grandfather's gift that allowed us to do it. And today, Edith May raises - Felice May raises miniature ponies.

It gives you some measure of the impact of that gift. There are others that have a less tangible impact, perhaps. There were a number of people in their letters that referenced thoughts of suicide, who said that when they read this offer, they realized all was not lost.

CONAN: Why was anonymity so important, do you think?

Mr. GUP: I think it was important, in fact indispensible, for a number of reasons. First, from my grandfather's vantage point, he had been raised, the Secret Santa of Canton, had been raised an Orthodox Jew and therefore had been attuned to the notion of tzedakah, which is a Jewish concept in which the highest form of giving is anonymous, the gift in which the giver expects nothing in return, not even recognition.

But it was also given anonymously because in those days, in that culture of America in 1933, there was no concept of entitlement. People were too proud to reach out for charity. And if they thought that there was any chance that they would know their benefactor, they would never have availed themselves of this offer.

CONAN: An Orthodox Jew - or raised an Orthodox Jew, who gave out anonymous gifts at Christmas.

Mr. GUP: Yes. In the course of my reporting, I discovered that contrary to the birth certificate I had that showed he was born in Pittsburgh and the passports all confirming that, all these documents were bogus. They were of his own design.

I discovered that, in fact, he was a refugee of Romanian pogroms who'd entered the country at 15 and spoke only Yiddish, kept kosher. And when he got off the boat, he declared himself an American, pretty much.

But this year that he gave the gift, 1933, was a remarkable year, particularly for him, because it was the year that Hitler came to power. And I think this gift was to some degree an expression of gratitude to a country that had taken him in, provided him safe haven and really embraced him, you know, as a member of the community.

CONAN: There were other tough years after 1933. Did he ever do it again?

Mr. GUP: Yes. He never duplicated this precise gift, but in 1940, when the Germans were bombing the British, he anonymously sent wool coats to Londoners, and in the pocket of each coat, he wrote a letter telling what his view was of democracy.

CONAN: There was an effort this year to duplicate your grandfather's gift with checks for $100, a fund started by three retired businessmen fascinated by the story of your grandfather.

Mr. GUP: Right, they used the same name, B. Virdot, that my grandfather used, took out an ad in the same paper, the Canton repository, and merely adjusted the amount of the gift for inflation from $5 to $100, raising $15,000 for 150 families.

And within a matter of about 10, 12 days, much of the rest of the community, some 200 others, came forward, and the fund now stands at $50,000, enough to help 500 families at this past Christmas.

And the gift was duplicated in other places. We know for example in Utah, a woman who used the name Virdot and provided $15,000 to needy families.

CONAN: It's interesting. You may have grown up watching the same TV show that I did, called "The Millionaire," where a man named John Beresford Tipton handed out anonymous checks for a million dollars to a new guest every week, and we heard their story.

This story is very powerful.

Mr. GUP: Well, it's powerful enough that it's being - the book is being published in China, Korea, Italy, Australia. It has a universal theme. People hunger for the idea of a pure gift, and this is as pure gift as one can imagine.

CONAN: And I wonder: How has the reporting of this story and the publication of your book, how has that changed your life?

Mr. GUP: Well, at the narrowest level, it's enhanced my appreciation of my grandfather immeasurably. But it's allowed me to meet the descendants of these recipients.

I brought them together in a theater in Canton, Ohio. We had between 400 and 600 people, and some came on stage and read from their parents' letters. It was very touching.

For my mother and her sisters, the daughters of B. Virdot, this is among the high points of their life. And for me, it's given me a renewed appreciation of what matters.

CONAN: And is there a manifestation of that? If you're giving anonymously, please don't tell us, but has this changed the way that you conduct your life, particularly around this time of the year?

Mr. GUP: My - I don't want to get into too much detail, but I will say that I have provided some assistance courtesy of the book and the book advance that I think my grandfather would have approved of.

CONAN: And you say you grew up in Canton. You're with us from Boston. Has Canton become a bigger part of your life again?

Mr. GUP: You know, even though I haven't lived there in decades, it's always been a major part of my life. It will always be my home. I have four, five generations of my family have lived there. And so it's always been part of the core of my values.

I have profound respect for the community and the people that live there and work there, and this book really is a reflection of their character, their resourcefulness and their resilience. So it's always been close to my heart.

CONAN: Ted Gup's book is "A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness and a Trove of Letters Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression." And he joined us today from a studio at Emerson College in Boston, where he's the chair of the journalism department. To read Ted Gup's story about his grandfather's generosity, you can go to our website at npr.org. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. GUP: It's my pleasure.

CONAN: When we come back, we're going to be talking more about how we give and why. What's the story behind your donation? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

And a programming note. Next week, Thursday, January 6th, we'll take a look at the role of the explorer in the 21st century and what's left to be explored on our planet.

Today, you can pinpoint a photo of your house on the Internet in just a few seconds, but there are still vast areas of the Earth no one's ever seen, from the depths of the ocean to mountain landscapes uncovered by climate change.

We're joining forces with National Geographic in front of a live audience at the National Geographic's Grosvenor Auditorium. If you're going to be in Washington, D.C. that day, please join us, January 6th. For information and free tickets, email talk@npr.org. Please put tickets in the subject line.

Right now, though, we're giving - talking about giving. This time of the year, many of us make our charitable donations. What's the story behind your donation? Why? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And GS is on the line with us from Berkeley, California.

GS (Caller): Well, thank you very much, love your show. This is Generous Soul, if you will, or Generous Spirit. It's just my initials, GS. But I tithe regularly. It isn't just because I started out as a good Christian. I'm actually a Sikh, and I'm a wannabe Buddhist practitioner and also a practicing atheist. I don't know what to make of it.

But I think it's been reported on NPR, maybe I'm mistaken on that one, too, but it's been reported recently on the radio that when one gives with an open hand, there's a release of dopamine in the brain, and that's one of the most profoundly powerful feel-good chemicals.

So maybe that's part of the reason why it's better to give than to receive. You just feel great. So anyway, I'll conclude with this - my entire gross income from Social Security Disability, SSI, is $1,891 a month, and I give 10 percent of it, reliably, every month to some random charity.

Sometimes it's just homeless people, sometimes - well, I don't consider KQED a charity, but anyway, I've contributed to Pacifica and KQED and such. But basically, I'm surrounded by homeless people in Berkeley. They're desperate. They need help.

I offer to take them to lunch, but I just basically keep track of it. And I figure, hey, I didn't do much of anything to have this wonderful life, but in appreciation, in gratitude for having a life, I basically feel it's appropriate for me to give essentially 10 percent of everything that's been given to me as a gesture of gratitude. That's what I do. Thank you.

CONAN: GS, thanks very much for your call, appreciate it.

You don't hear a lot about B. Virdots, or GS for that matter, in the world giving to strangers. More often, people have personal ties to the organizations or people they give to. Many of the motivations for giving are embedded in our culture.

Diana Aviv is president of the Independent Sector, a member organization that represents hundreds of nonprofits and corporate giving programs. And she joins us now from, well, it was just mentioned on the radio, member station KQED in San Francisco. And nice to have you with us today.

Ms. DIANA AVIV (President, Chief Executive Officer, Independent Sector): Delighted to be with you.

CONAN: And it's interesting. Do you hear a lot of people from the GS perspective, who give 10 percent of their income?

Ms. AVIV: Ten percent's incredibly generous. What we do know is that people who are publicly identified as being religious tend to give much more than people who describe themselves as being secular.

We looked into whether one religion tends to give more than another religious group, and what we found is that it's mostly the same. Maybe there's a marginal difference, in which people who are very religious give more than those who are less religious.

Giving 10 percent of their income, especially with somebody like that who has so little himself, is extraordinary. But it reminds me of something else. There's a world study that was done recently on a world index of giving, looking at about 155 countries around the world and seeing who gave the most.

And what was most interesting about that study is that it seemed that the countries that gave the most, the people who gave the most, came from countries in which they described themselves as being the happiest people, not the richest people, so that the association of giving with a sense of well-being seems to be well-correlated.

CONAN: So you may not be a scientist and not know about the dopamine effect, but happiness seems to correlate.

Ms. AVIV: Exactly.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, again 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Mohammed's(ph) on the line calling from Saudi Arabia.

MOHAMMED (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello, Mohammed. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MOHAMMED: Yes. I am a Muslim, and I would like to give the perspective of Islam in giving away. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad teach us that when we give a charity, it lands in the hands of God, which he keep it for us, multiply it for us and give it back to us later on, in the hereafter.

So we are encouraged to give away more than we consume ourselves. Prophet Muhammad once returned his home and inquired from his wife, what happened to the lamb that you slaughtered today? She said, we give away everything except the shoulder. We have kept it to eat. He said, no, you should say it the other way around, that we have consumed the shoulder, and everything to give away, this is what has remained for us, and this is what we're eternally of the benefit of.

Also, the anonymity in giving away, there is a very popular tradition that a man wanted to give away his charity so nobody recognizes him. So at night, he went and put a big donation in the hand of a lady without, you know, while he was covering his head.

The second day, everyone said a man and gave a donation to a prostitute. He's a fool man. The second day, he did the same thing. It ended up in the hands of a thief. So (unintelligible) somebody donated to a thief.

And the third day, he put it in the hands of a rich person. So he, this man later was called, you know, this is a tradition, the prostitute has taken this money, and she has abandoned the wrong behavior, and she has became a good lady. And the thief, he decided to quit stealing and now he became a good citizen. And the rich man, he felt ashamed of himself keeping the money and not giving away, and he started sharing the money with his community, as well.

CONAN: Mohammed, thank you very much for that parable. It's very interesting. We appreciate that. Thanks very much for the phone call, too.

MOHAMMED: You are very welcome.

CONAN: And Diana Aviv, we mentioned religious tradition. Clearly, Mohammed has one. We heard about Ted Gup's tradition, his grandfather coming from a tradition of anonymous donations. Where - is that strictly tradition?

Ms. AVIV: Well, you know, it's interesting that if you look at the major faiths, all of the faiths - Hinduism, Catholicism, look at the various forms of Protestant believers - and in each one of those faiths, there's a mandate of some kind to give and that those mandates to give are considered to be among the most important mandates that the followers of those faiths are required to do.

And that's why I don't think it's such a big surprise that, therefore, people who consider themselves to be very religious also consider it a really important part of their lives to give.

And then the beauty of that is that as they give, they find that theyre getting much more than they are giving because of the sense of well-being that they have. So I think that this is generally an important part of giving.

It's also interesting that in the United States, I know that the person who spoke was from Saudi Arabia, but just a little information about the United States that 80 percent of Americans report that they're giving. But of those who describe themselves as being religious, 94 percent of that group give, as well. So there does seem to be some strong correlation there.

CONAN: Here's an email from Steven(ph) in Sacramento. I recommend Maimonides' guide on charitable giving. In a modern implementation of his recommendation, you anonymously make it possible for a poor person to make a living. I give to the university with a request my donation go toward scholarships for first-generation students.

So again, another person coming from the religious tradition, in this case the scholar Maimonides.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Marty(ph). Marty's with us from Columbia in South Carolina.

MARTY (Caller): Hello, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARTY: Yes, my daughters, weve adopted two from southern China, and since then, we have given to their orphanages and the system over there. And we were cutting back because the economy was so bad.

And then we got a letter saying giving was down 1.5 million for that orphanage agency. And I have seen these children firsthand and thought of all the charities to give to it was the one we wanted to dedicate our money to because they have so little.

And they do the best they can with the resources they have, but in the United States, we have so very much more than they do. And so, that's who we sent our charitable donation to this year.

CONAN: And so an agency that has directly touched your life, as well.

MARTY: Absolutely. And our daughters are proof of wonderful things. They are the best things in our lives. And it was just a great experience for us.

CONAN: Marty, thanks very much for the call. And I'm sure they will put the check to good use.

MARTY: Yes, thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And again, Diana Aviv, places that have touched our lives, that seems to be one way that people decide who to give money to.

Ms. AVIV: Definitely. This is related to people's feelings and what's important to them, and almost always, it's connected to somewhere, some linkage with people's own experiences.

But then there's also lots of different ways. People made - ride the bicycle in a particular community and find that the back pairs aren't really that great and contribute not only to - so that they benefit but that everybody else benefits as well. So there's - that might be an example of giving where it's touched their lives, not only in a very personal way but also in a public use kind of a way. That's generally the way it's connected.

What we all find in there - I was listening to what the speaker was saying, what the caller was saying is that this year, we are a little worried about the level of giving. And while religious organizations, in the last couple of years, haven't experienced the decline in giving, other organizations have because of the economy. So even as generous as people have been, there are a lot of people who are still suffering because the giving isn't keeping pace with the growth in need.

CONAN: Let's go next to Emily, Emily with us from Idaho Falls.

EMILY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to tell I am LDS or Mormon. And as an LDS member, I give - well, my husband and I give 10 percent of our income to the church for different things and also a fast offering when we fast once a month and contribute what we would've spent on food to the needy. And I just want to explain a little about that. We do that with the hope that when we need it that we would be able to have the blessings that we need as well.

And last year at this time, my husband was going through chemotherapy for cancer and I was expecting our fourth child. And my sister-in-law knew we needed a minivan. We did have a small Saturn sedan. And so she talked to people at her work and her church and just between friends and family and people that we didn't even know she came up with $7,000 for us to get a minivan so we could have enough room for all of our kids. And we really felt that that was a blessing because of the sacrifices that we've made.

CONAN: So you had cast your bread upon the waters and it came back.

EMILY: Right.

CONAN: Oh, and we could hear that the necessity for the fourth seat in the minivan has arrived as well.

EMILY: Right. Yep, she's here and happy, so we've been blessed.

CONAN: Well, Emily, thank you very much for the call and congratulations.

EMILY: Thank you so much.

CONAN: We're talking about why we give 2010.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And then we reintroduce our guest. Diana Aviv, president and CEO of the Independent Sector, the national leadership forum for America's nonprofits, foundations and corporate giving programs.

This is from Jim in Fort Mill, South Carolina. I've always given to the Salvation Army faithfully throughout the year and continue to do so, as well as other charities. However, I find myself donating to charities that fill a niche. For example, charities that are focused on issues relating to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth and those dealing with anti-hate campaigns. Those are the ones getting my dollars. Not that the others are not worthy, but in tough times, I guess trying to see that the money goes to where it is needed.

And this is from Talconsha(ph), and I hope I'm not mispronouncing that too badly. I knew of co-worker's children where I work who were very poor. I followed the co-worker's husband in line at Wal-Mart one year on Christmas Eve and saw a few things he was buying. I decided to send $20 to each child on each holiday of the following year in a card anonymously. I signed each card, a friend. Never heard anything about it at work, but it helped my heart to do it for several years for those two kids. I also gave them a quote that I like when I sent the cards. I hope it would inspire them to pass it forward someday.

Passing it forward, that's another way to put the conversation. Let's get Tessa on the line. Tessa with us from Sioux City in Iowa.

TESSA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TESSA: I live in a transitional housing facility for the homeless, so I kind of know how it feels to go without. I was at my church and we were told a story about a woman in - where they were having a war in Croatia and Serbia.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TESSA: And it was wintertime, and her parents made her go to school. And her shoes were tied together with wire. And she was so upset that her parents made her go to school but she was contemplating running way. And she gets to school and somebody hands her a box. And inside this box were goodies and a brand new pair of shoes. And to this day, she donates to what's called Operation Christmas Child, and she disperses presents through this organization so that other kids who were needy in parts of the world can have something special for Christmas.

And even though I'm in a bad situation, there are people who are much worse off than I am. And I took a box for a little boy and for a little girl and I gave it to them and it's going to India. So I'm - I really hope that they like it. And that's why I decided to give because there are people who need it in other parts of the world a lot more than I do.

CONAN: Tessa, thank you.

TESSA: Thank you.

CONAN: I wondered, Diana Aviv, you were talking about people who are religious who tend to give more than others. People who are happy tend to give more than others. Any information on people who are least well of? Do they tend to make donations?

Ms. AVIV: Yes. In fact, if you look at - you know, if you look at the overall amount of giving, obviously, people who've got a lot of money can give much larger amounts because they have much more that's available to them. But if you look per capita at giving, people who are the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who have less money proportionately actually give more of their money. We also know that older people give more money. Younger people volunteer more.

You know, when we talk about giving, Neal, there's lot of way to do it. There are, in fact, three different ways that I could - that come to mind. One is to give money, cash. Another one is to give of your time, whether you've got skills or you've got the time to help in a particular way. And the third is to help a stranger. Often, there are things that all of us do, that each of us do that we don't consider to be volunteering and giving.

But we're helping a neighbor, whether it's an elderly person living next door and taking them a hot meal or helping them to get on and off a bus, those kinds of things. So that the act of giving is giving to others so that you don't necessarily directly benefit by the act other than how it makes you feel.

CONAN: Diana Aviv, we wish you, however it may be derived, a joyous holiday season.

Ms. AVIV: Thank you. Glad to be with you today.

CONAN: Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, the national leadership forum for American nonprofits and corporate giving programs, with us today from our member station in San Francisco, KQED.

Coming up, we continue our conversation with diverse Americans about what's changed over the past year. Today, gays and lesbians. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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