Perspectives on Philanthropy
from Jerold Panas
Books by Jerold Panas
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Anything is Possible
Lessons from the quintessential board member
I’m going to start with a story. It’s true, every word. And there’s an important lesson in it.
It is 1957, on a hot summer day in Bossier City, Louisiana. A determined woman named Madeline marches her three children into the backyard of their home. She carries a shoebox, a pad of paper, and three pencils. Bonnie is one of the children. That’s who this story is about. She is seven years old at the time.
Madeline hands a sheet of paper and a pencil to each child. “I want you to write the word can’t on that piece of paper. Go ahead, write it. Now fold it up and the three of you, put your sheets in the shoe box.”
The children watch as Madeline digs a hole and buries the box. The three children cover it with dirt. And right there and then, they have a burial service. Proper and sacred last rites. The angels would have been proud.
SEMINARS FOR FUNDRAISERS 2014
“You can never use the terrible word can’t again,” Madeline admonishes, “because now it’s buried.” And Bonnie has seldom if ever used the word again because, as she says, “It’s buried back in Louisiana.” And anyone around Bonnie is advised not to use the word either. She’ll cut you off at the knees.
Bonnie McElveen-Hunter is a possibility thinker. She believes you can do anything in life if you have the passion for it. Ah, that’s the key. Passion. That’s perhaps the single word that best characterizes Bonnie. It imbues her being. It is her soul, her spirit, the wellspring of her energy.
For Bonnie, life is a wondrous joy. For most others, they watch television and miss the show.
That could be the end of the lesson right there. But there’s more. Read on about this extraordinary woman.
I first met Bonnie at a meeting of the United Way of America. She was speaking to the group about her passion (there’s that word again) for empowering women to take on more significant roles. She was electrifying. It was like a calvary charge. Nothing less than soul and spirit reaching toward infinity.
That evening at dinner, a South Carolinian named Charlotte, who also attended the United Way meeting, leans over to Bonnie and asks: “What do you think I should do for this program.” Without a second’s hesitation Bonnie says: “I think you should give a million dollars.” That’s what I consider an invitation to life’s dance! “Well…” Charlotte says: “That’s exactly what I’ll do.” And she does!
Later I say to the folks at the United Way: “Good grief, who is this marvel, Bonnie?” Here’s what I find out.
If you’ve flown on United Airlines, Delta, or US Airways and read their in-flight magazines -- you’ve seen Bonnie’s fine hand at work. It’s her company that produces them. Twenty-seven years ago, she was hired to work at a small print shop in Greensboro, North Carolina. She started with one assistant. She has since bought the company and built it into a $80 million operation with 200 employees.
I asked one of her employees what makes Bonnie so successful, so special. “Once you meet her, you never have to ask,” he said. “It’s impossible to say no to her.” I found that to be true.
She credits her success to steadfast faith, high energy, and a mother with high expectations and a low tolerance for failure. Bonnie acknowledges that her mother is the greatest influence in her life.
I spent an afternoon with Madeline. And I can see where Bonnie gets her motivation and inspiration. I won’t guess Madeline’s age, but in spirit and energy, I’d match her against any 40-year-old. She has what the French call, voie de vivre—the knack of knowing how to live.
We’re in Bonnie’s Hospitality Suite at the U.S. Open – so close to the net at Center Court that I could team up with Venus Williams as her doubles partner. Between matches, Madeline tells me: “I taught my children that time is precious and to use it wisely. And mediocrity is life’s greatest sin. Doing something right always puts joy in your heart. And most important, anything is possible if you want it badly enough.” Wow!
Bonnie considers herself an agent for change. She’s committed to using what God has given her, to play a major role in the fabric of society. She serves on the international board of Habitat for Humanity and the board of the United Way’s Mega Gifts program. The latter is for million dollar donors, of which she is one. She has also given that much and more to Habitat for Humanity.
She donates 15 percent! of the company’s profit. And that’s in addition to what she gives away personally. “It’s a privilege to give,” she says. “I’m doing the Lord’s work.”
Now, a brief interruption. What I’m about to tell you is something quite extraordinary and worth the diversion.
Bonnie gives $1,000 now and then to her college. Considering the usual scale of her giving, I ask why so little -- wasn’t it a very good experience? “It was fabulous, the greatest experience in my life,” she says. “It was life changing.”
Then why, I ask, do you give so little compared to what you do for other organizations? Simple, she says. “The folks at the college never ask. They never call on me. You would think they’d be smart enough to figure out who and where I am.”
I won’t mention the name of the college (but I’d race to my database if I were you, though it’s probably too late.) What a lesson. We all know it’s true, and I keep reminding you! It’s amazing what you don’t get when you don’t ask.
Now back to the main story. On the couch in Bonnie’s office is a slogan embroidered on her pillow: “Life is Short. Hell is Hot. And the Stakes are High.” That’s Bonnie personified. Energy that could launch a missile.
She raised $1 million for Habitat by calling on a few friends. The story of what happened in Greensboro, North Carolina, is even more dramatic. When she became chair of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, there were a handful of members. The Society is the United Way’s designation for individuals who give $10,000 or more to the annual campaign. The first year, she added 73 members. The next year, 117. This year, her goal is well beyond that.
How did she do it? Well, to begin with – and as her employees confirm -- it’s impossible to say no to Bonnie. People are attracted to her, like metal filings to a magnet. But there’s more.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to tap into the traditional old boys network for growing our Alexis de Tocqueville Society,” Bonnie tells me.
She came up with an audacious idea. No one had tried it before, not anywhere in the country. But for Bonnie, it was a blinding flash of the obvious.
She looked around at the Greensboro membership in de Tocqueville Society and saw that it was primarily male. She thought there was a real opportunity to invoke women as de Tocqueville Society givers themselves, or to give husbands and significant others an opportunity to honor the women in their life through a membership in their name.
Here’s how Bonnie proceeded. “In many cases, I focused on going to a woman’s husband, and said, ‘Your wife has been the anchor of your family and you are where you are in part because of her commitment to being a great mother and great wife. The truth is, and I don’t care how successful you are, if your children don’t turn out the way you hope, then you have nothing.’” It worked. Bonnie was laden with gifts, like a swollen-winged bee returning from the meadows.
But that wasn’t all. She went to Merrill Lynch and asked for help. She proposed that the company donate a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal to honor the new women members of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society. In the ad, each woman’s picture would appear, spotlighting Greensboro as an extraordinary giving community. Merrill Lynch bought the idea and sponsored the ad. At the national United Way headquarters, they have been swamped with communities saying, “If Greensboro can do it, so can we!”
They say that if you want to eat an elephant, take one bite at a time. I’m not at all certain Bonnie believes that. With great courage and high-wire impudence, she is devouring the whole elephant and launching a new program. The concept will be evolutionary, but the results will be revolutionary. The impact will change forever the way funds are raised in this country.
Here’s the idea. If you want a track team to win the high jump, you find one person who can jump seven feet -- not seven people who can jump one foot each. Bonnie figures that her concept worked so well in Greensboro, it will work all over the country. Simply unleash the power, potency, and potential of women in 100 of the major cities in the country, and get 100 women in each city to become de Tocqueville members at a minimum gift of $10,000.
Think of it. One-hundred women in each of 100 cities. Somewhere here I hear the psalmist repeating that heaven is reserved for the person “Who doeth the thing which is righteous and feelth love in the heart.” Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, please stand.
With her typical zest, determination, and ardor -- and with the enthusiastic blessing (of course!) of the United Way -- the program is now underway. The zeros are formidable. There’s the potential infusion of a new $100 million dollars that will go to serve a human and social agenda all over the country. Multiply that times 10 years of giving and you have a billion dollars.
People say that one of Bonnie’s greatest qualities is that she seeks and finds opportunities in adversity. She’s never met a problem she didn’t love! “What happens, for instance,” I ask, “if someone turns you down for a gift?” Bonnie says that she doesn’t consider that a no -- only another opportunity to look for a different approach.
Giving is a privilege, she believes. She lives by that credo. But she is also quick to point out that asking is a privilege, too. “I never feel I’m asking for myself. I’m asking for something I’m passionate about.” She hymns the ways of fund raising.
Talk about passion. For Bonnie, there was only one way to ring in the new millennium. “I didn’t want to be drinking champagne, flying around the world, or on some exotic island.” So she invited 600 friends to join her inside a large warehouse in Greensboro to build house frames for Habitat. “I wanted to do something that would make a difference.”
Her great magic is her ability to help others see the potential within themselves and become involved in effecting change. With Bonnie, you don’t just write a check and walk away. She wants your gift—certainly. But she also wants your head and heart every bit as much. Bonnie has an extraordinary talent to inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.
“I believe that with the help of a lot of other people, we can change the world,” she says. “Nothing ever gets done by one person. It’s always people willing to put their efforts together that make it happen.”
That’s all she wants to do -- change the world! “If I believe in something, I’m passionate about it. I grew up believing that with God’s help, I can do anything I set my mind to. I’ve been called the quintessential optimist.”
She combines her professional life of running her successful business with what she calls doing the Lord’s work. From what I calculate, that’s about a 70-hour a week job. And she loves every moment of it. She is a grateful, exuberant diner at life’s feast.
I ask about her workload. “I hate to admit it, but if I didn’t get paid one penny for what I’m doing, I’d still want to come into this office and do what I do every day. I think that’s where you find your passion -- when what you love is also what you have the privilege of doing.” She fills her life like an overflowing soup bowl.
I get back to the question about her giving. You guessed it. Her response is what you expected.
“Don’t you believe that people give the most to organizations where they are the most heavily involved?”
Right on! Oh, the awe and wonder. I’ve been preaching that for years. Get men and women involved and they will follow with their heart and their purse.
Bonnie tells me she is certain that giving is a habit. Well, I’ve been preaching that gospel, also. The more a person gives, the more they’ll give in the future. The joy and passion take over. You are overwhelmed with the knowledge that they are helping to change lives and save lives. Long ago, Wadsworth told us that: “This is the soul that rises within us and becomes our life’s star.”
Finally, I get to one of my favorite subjects and something of the greatest consequence to all organizations. I ask Bonnie about her board involvement.
“You’re one of the most visible and prominent women in the country. You must be asked to serve on a lot of boards. Man or woman, you would be precisely the level of donor and volunteer every organization would lust for.”
“I get asked a lot,” she says, “but I’ve chosen only the United Way and Habitat for Humanity to work with. Those are my loves, my passion.”
“You can’t say yes to everything,” Bonnie continues. “I believe you should serve only where you can make a contribution and a commitment. That takes time and it takes money. In order to serve effectively, you have to be picky. Follow your passion.”
I give her my Board Report Card and ask that she fill it out. I find that there’s a small minus because of attendance -- a result of her heavy work commitment. But other then that, as you can imagine, she comes through with flying colors. Nearly a perfect score. Of course! “In my family, a C grade was unacceptable. Well, so was a B.” That’s Madeline’s influence again.
There are many mountaintops. All of them reach for the stars. Bonnie is one of the world’s highest peaks.
If you’ve been taking notes, and I hope you have, here’s a review of the lessons that Bonnie teaches us.
- Expunge can’t from your vocabulary. Bury it.
- Anything is possible if you want it badly enough and are willing to sacrifice and work for it.
- Give your heart and soul to whatever you get involved in. Let it burn like fire in your bones.
- It’s a privilege to give and it’s a privilege to ask.
- Don’t take no for an answer. It is only an opportunity to seek a different approach.
- Fully empower women. It will come as no surprise that they are our greatest asset, and still the most underdeveloped and utilized. “Women can accomplish anything they dream,” says Bonnie. (It’s said that whatever women do, they must do it twice as well as men in order to be thought half as good. Fortunately, this is not at all difficult!)
- Limit the boards you serve on.
- Mediocrity is life’s greatest sin. There’s plenty of room at the bottom.
- You must ask for the gift. (Remember Bonnie’s college!) The reason expressed most often why a person hasn’t given is that he or she wasn’t asked. There isn’t another reason that is a close second.
- And the greatest lesson of all is that you must bring passion to everything you do.
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