The rule of thumb in journalism is that any time you can find three examples, you’ve got a trend. We will not invoke that claim here. These are simply the idiosyncratic stories of three people who sought to be community benefactors, either through new ways, or, in one case, by reformulating an old one.
In a field normally devoted to what corporations, foundations, and major donors can do, or should know, about public policy issues, this is a look at what a few mom-and-pop enterprises are up to. (Indeed, since all three stories are about women, maybe that should be narrowed to simply “mom enterprises.”)
What the principal characters have in common is an eagerness to find ways to help that involve direct person-to-person connections. All three set out to show that one person can make a difference, and all succeeded. Their stories are offered in the belief that they can inspire, offer hope, or serve as examples.
Susan Martel, a short vivacious, brown-haired woman who will go to extraordinary lengths to make a good cup of coffee, started on her philanthropic activities after making a disturbing discovery about herself. “I don’t really like whiners,” says the 51-year-old psychotherapist and author, “and one day I realized I had become one. I was tired of hearing myself say that the government should do this or do that. I decided I would just do what I could, however small, and stop whining.”
The flow of refugees from Southeast Asia was a big story at the time, and Martel decided to see what she could do to help. At first it was simply a matter of collecting clothes and furniture to be distributed to refugee families. Then she was introduced to a family of Vietnamese boat people. The father had died of cancer shortly after the family had arrived in America. The mother, grandmother, and three children were living in two rented rooms with no furniture except a piano and a TV.
Martel and her then-husband bought them a house.
Or, to be more precise, they made the down payment, which was paid back in rapid order. “We actually tried to get them to slow down,” Martel recalls. The Martels also tried to buy furniture for the family, but they would only accept desks for the kids.
This successful first experience in person-to-person philanthropy was followed by a series of others, most of them involving contacts Martel made through the St. Francis De Sales Catholic Church in West Philadelphia. “That’s my parish,” she says cheerfully today. “I’m their only Jewish member.”
One of these activities was helping a thrift store called the Second Mile Center that supported a drug and alcohol abuse treatment ministry. “I would see people out on [Philadelphia’s] Main Line throwing out things that looked perfectly good to me. I would put them in the back of my Volvo and drive them to the shop.”
Next Martel spent $15 to put ads in the “garage sale” section of local newspapers suggesting that instead of going through the hassle of selling stuff, people should donate it to the Second Mile Store and get a tax deduction. The store had a truck and would make pick-ups. Stuff piled in by the ton, and the initial investment of $15 eventually resulted in over $200,000 in added revenues.
What advice does Martel have for other aspiring philanthropists? First, she believes it’s best to start small. For example, in the course of her refugee work she heard about a fellow benefactor who had wanted to help a little girl learn English, so he hired another refugee who had been a teacher to instruct her.
Building on this successful experience, Martel and three others got together and eventually created the Education Advancement Center, which provided language instruction, homework help, after-school care, and an arts program for hundreds of refugee and other neighborhood children. It eventually took over a building that had been vacated by a school for the blind, and is still going strong eight years later.
Martel, however, has long since moved on. “I discovered that I was not a manager,” she says. “I’m not into organization and structure. Other people can do that better than I can.”
She likes to think of herself as a “catalyst,” and her favorite story is about the Christmas cards for the homeless. “I was sitting one night in the Philadelphia Country Club around 1995 and there was this beautiful picture by a local artist,” a domestic scene entitled Coming Home.
She started thinking what a great greeting card it would make, so she started making phone calls, first to find an agency working with the homeless that was worthy, and capable of managing the project. Then she called the artist and got permission to use his painting. A few more phone calls “got the whole shooting match donated,” she recalls happily. A real estate company agreed to sell the cards in its offices. The cards have become an annual event, bringing in over $100,000 a year.
At present, Martel is working on a program to help low-income families adopt children. She has moved from the Main Line to a large home in a park-like section of the city that she makes available at no cost to small social action agencies that need a place to hold a retreat. And she’s looking around for new opportunities to be a catalyst.
“Real change, I know as a psychotherapist,” she says, “comes slowly, by putting one foot in front of the other, or even one toe in front of another. If you look at a problem and say, ‘Omigod, that’s so big I can never do anything about it,’ nothing will ever get done. But if you start small, one thing leads to another leads to another.”
“I grew up in a family of great wealth, which was a wonderful thing, and a not wonderful thing at the same time,” says Ann Baruch, an attractive, carefully dressed woman in her early fifties. In her ribbed turtleneck and tailored jacket, as she lunches at one of Philadelphia’s tonier restaurants it’s difficult—but not impossible—to imagine her sweaty and gritty as she rappels down a cliff at the North Carolina Outward Bound School.
She recalls her growing up in Cincinnati as pleasant and protected. “I went to private schools and came out as a debutante and all that stuff,” she remembers. When she married a Philadelphia stockbroker and moved to the Main Line she found herself in much the same kind of environment. “For years I did the Orchestra and worked on the stereotypical charity balls, and this is not meant to knock any of those activities. Yet I always found them kind of isolating, and I never knew why.” Looking back on it now, she realizes that she was looking for a more direct connection, and an activity about which she could feel real passion.
Like Martel, Baruch’s turning point occurred when she was around age 40 and getting a divorce, although neither woman sees the disruption of her marriage as integral to the change in her philanthropic activities. The key event that would lead Baruch to a passion for philanthropy actually occurred in 1981, five years before her divorce. The man who had been best man at her wedding called and said he was in town with a woman he had been dating. When they met for dinner, the woman turned out to be a cabinmate from the camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains Baruch had attended as a teenager.
Those years, it turned out, had had a profound effect on them both. “I found that I had internalized those mountains. I felt a tremendous peace when I was there.” Her cabinmate had felt the same way, and had become one of the founders of the North Carolina Outward Bound School located only a short distance from the camp. She urged Baruch to come down for an Outward Bound course that year, and from that time on, Outward Bound would be a theme running through Baruch’s life.
“I believe that a person can’t help but be changed for the better by an Outward Bound experience,” she says. It forced Baruch to overcome not only her terror of walking across a balance beam sixty feet in the air, but also her insecurities about dependency. The wilderness experience took her on an inward journey that proved to be an antidote to the feeling of “being separated from a majority of the world” that dated back to her affluent childhood.
“I had been taught to always be very proper and never get down and dirty,” she says. “You weren’t supposed to get angry, or jealous. Outward Bound forced me to acknowledge my human side. I found that the experience brought me closer to people because I realized everybody was like that.”
But her interest and attachment to Outward Bound would grow slowly, over the course of additional expeditions. She didn’t join the board of the North Carolina school until 1995, after which she began arranging expeditions bringing along female friends from the Main Line area. Meanwhile she was working on a number of other projects including work with a hospice, the activities of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and serving on several boards. Baruch reached an important conclusion about her philanthropic efforts. “I made a decision,” she says, “that my major giving would be only to institutions where there was an opportunity to give more than just money.”
During these years her interest in education brought her into contact with a high school in Philadelphia, and a special program housed within it called YouthBuild, which worked with dropouts. A plan was formulated to connect the high school with Outward Bound, but the political hurdles were too high, and it was never realized. Meanwhile YouthBuild’s Philadelphia director, with whom Baruch had become friendly, took advantage of Pennsylvania’s new charter school legislation to become a separate school.
“So I had all these things going on,” recalls Baruch. “I was involved with Outward Bound, with YouthBuild, and I was organizing these Outward Bound expeditions for women. Then I saw a way to bring it all together.” She organized about two dozen of the women who had been on the expeditions to raise $10,000 as their part in enabling eight kids from the YouthBuild charter school to go on a 23-day North Carolina Outward Bound course this summer. Baruch intends to expand the venture as soon as she can.
Baruch’s advice to others is to “do what you believe in.” She adds that while she does not consider herself a very religious person, “this is how I know God.”
“I think professional training almost trains you out of any ability to actually get things done,” quips Sally Griffith, a cheerful ex-Villanova University history professor. “Academics in particular tend to end up in a state of learned helplessness,” she says, in which they have no way to either make their jobs more interesting, or escape them. Her solution was to get out. “People were shocked when I left” three years ago, she says, “because no one ever leaves a tenured job. It just doesn’t happen.”
If she has any regrets, she’s not confessing them. Griffith, a hearty 46-year-old, has poured much of her energy into the homeless outreach activities and other social programs of her church, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles, where she is now senior warden. She is working on several book projects, including a history of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and is also an at-home mother for her son, now in the sixth grade, who had been chafing at the restrictions of day care. Her husband is a successful executive with an information technology company, and the family is financially comfortable.
Some might see Griffith as a throwback, a woman giving up her career for her child, voluntarism, and part-time work, but in the current context her decision seems somehow defiant of the social order. Her lack of reverence for materialism—“I was a little uncomfortable about where two incomes were leading us,” she says—certainly comes across as iconoclastic.
Even more so is her critique of academe. “I had been reading a lot of the literature of the civil society people,” she says. “The expectation seemed to be that the more you wrote about civic values, the more likely it is that they’re somehow going to emerge.” Griffith, who had written a book about William Allen White, the legendary Emporia, Kansas, newspaper editor, and who had spent time studying people who were active in their communities, felt that “values are learned in action, in doing things, not sitting in a classroom or attending a conference.”
She also reflected on her own father, who had been a newspaper editor in a small town in Wyoming, and his active sense of civic involvement. “I was contrasting that with my own personal experience dealing with issues. I could write about them, I could talk about them, I could say what ought to be done,” she says, but she felt incapable of actually doing anything about them.
For a while she thought about trying to start a business, and while nothing eventually came of that, she found that reading about it gave her a more entrepreneurial attitude and “changed my frame of reference.” Around the same time, she “accidentally” volunteered to head up a program under which the church would cook meals for the elderly and infirm. “I didn’t step back fast enough,” she says.
The experience changed her life. The task seemed simple enough: preparing meat sauce, pasta, vegetables, and a dessert (apple sauce topped with granola), with the help of ten volunteers. Nonetheless, she found that she was petrified, frequently waking up during the nights preceding the big day in a cold sweat. “I was totally panic-stricken,” she recalls. “I had no faith that things were going to come off. I’d never organized anything like this before.” But when things did come off without a hitch, she was “ecstatic.”
She was still more or less a by-stander when the church made its next move, joining a consortium of churches that had agreed to provide shelter for a month each year for homeless people who would otherwise be sleeping in a transit terminal on the city border. But the reaction at her church provided another object lesson in the current state of civil society. Griffith was appalled at the level of opposition in the church. “A lot, though not all, of the opposition came from the generation that had settled in the area after World War II, and saw themselves as escaping the city. So bringing homeless people to the church was bringing to them the people they had been trying to get away from.”
But this story too had a happy outcome. “The real shocker for people was that so many of the people who came were elderly and white, or were people who had jobs.” A letter that was sent warning the neighbors did produce a couple of calls to protest—but also resulted in a number of families joining the church. Griffith became part of the shelter program, eventually heading it.
The most heartening thing to Griffith was the long-term reaction of the people who had been most opposed to the shelter. The first year of the program they stopped coming to services during the month the homeless were being sheltered. The second year the boycott was over, and by the third year many of these older members who had been opposed were actively signing up to participate.
At present, there’s talk about a new program to channel volunteers into the public schools, and Griffith’s main concern is how she’ll find time to participate outside of her work and family responsibilities. “What I’m doing right now is nothing particularly dramatic,” she says, “but I’m very happy.”
David Boldt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.