Ave Maria University recently unveiled its plans for its first performing arts theater, a project whose success is brightened by the fact that Myra Daniels is chairing its fundraising. From her first business venture as a girl selling party favors, Daniels went on to build a pioneering advertising firm and then become president of the legendary Draper Daniels Inc. (model for the TV show “Mad Men”). The ingenuity and entrepreneurship that Daniels applied to advertising have made her a success in philanthropy as well. She was the founder and longtime CEO of the arts center that is home to the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra. Now considered one of the most financially stable orchestras in the U.S., the philharmonic was struggling when Daniels took charge of a fund drive that raised $100,000 in five days. A few years later her charge occupied a new hall and was debt free. On behalf of Philanthropy, Peter Atkinson spoke recently with Myra Daniels about ads, giving, faith, and her current projects.
Q: How did your advertising experience help your philanthropic work?
A: In advertising, we were always selling an idea, a concept, a product. And, in a funny way, philanthropy is like that, too. You are creating an excitement about a worthy cause or a community need. You are selling the idea that we can all work together to make this community, and this world, a better place. That’s the best kind of salesmanship, and the best type
That’s the principle we used to sell our community on building the Philharmonic Center for the Arts and the Naples Museum of Art. At first I just took a telephone book—back in the days when people still used telephone books—and put a dot beside every nth name and started making calls.
"She said to me, 'I have a couple of ‘mil’ that hasn't been spent this year, and I’ll give you that.' And she meant millions!"
On one of my first calls, I said, “Hello, I’m Myra Daniels. I have an idea that I think will change the lives of people in this community, and I’d like to talk about it.” And the woman on the other end said, “Okay, I guess so.” At the end she said, “Well that’s very interesting. I can give you 25.” I didn’t know it at the time, but it was not $25 she was offering. It turned out to be $25,000! And we went from there.
This woman was Frances Pew Hayes, who had a family foundation. And she later said to me, “I have a couple of ‘mil’ that hasn’t been spent this year, and I’ll give you that.” And she meant millions! She became sold on the idea, and so did the rest of the community.
Q: Were many of the donations that size?
A: They were all sizes. We accepted donations from people of all ages and all backgrounds. That was the wonderful thing about it. There was one child who met me in the grocery store one day who recognized my face from our television ads. He said, “You’re the woman on TV.” And I said, “Maybe.” He said, “You were selling bricks for $100. I’d like to buy one, but I don’t have that much money.” I said, “Well how much do you have?” It turns out he had $1.29. I said, “Well, I’ll take a dollar and let you keep the change. And you’ll be a good example to your friends.” I did put a paver with his name on it in front of the Philharmonic Center. It was teaching him something.
Q: How did you transition from advertising to philanthropic work?
A: I’ve always been involved in giving, from the time I was five years old. I got an allowance back then, and my grandmother said, “I’m going to give you 50 cents. How are you going to share it?” And I said, “I don’t have to; it’s mine!” And she said, “Give it back, then. You think about how you can share it.” So I thought about that and the next day I said to myself, “Well, okay, I’ll give a dime away.” Then I thought, “There are two kids in class who look like they never have any money, so I’ll give two dimes away.” So I got to school early and I put the money in little envelopes and I wrote on the front, “To a friend, from a friend."
And then I sat there, and pretended I was working at my desk. And this little girl came in, and she opened her desk to get her pen and saw this envelope. She opened it, and there was a dime. She turned to me and said, “Did you see someone come in here?” And I wasn’t lying—I didn’t see someone. So I said, “No.”
I got so much joy out of it that the next time I got my 50 cents, I gave three dimes away. And then I gave four. And my grandmother was very pleased. Afterward I remembered I didn’t know how to spell “friend.” I’d spelled: “To a fiend, from a fiend!” I still think philanthropy is best when nobody knows what you do.
Q: You said at Ave Maria University’s scholarship dinner that building the university’s new theater is your most important project. Why?
A: Because the need is great and the students are compelling. I think it will change the students’ lives there. I know it will. And it will benefit the whole community, as well. This is my creed, really: See a need. Do your research. Know that the need is clear. Feel comfortable about it. And do a lot of praying.
There’s such talent at Ave Maria! Tom Monaghan, the founder, had approached me earlier to help, maybe five or six years ago, but Ave Maria wasn’t quite ready then. It had too many other needs. Now it’s ready, and we have a great start. It will make a big difference and put the college on the map for its arts programs.
"I’ll give you my secrets. I believe that I have been guided and guarded and governed. I believe that fervently."
Q: You’re also involved with building the Mother Teresa Museum at the university. Does the model of Mother Teresa influence you in philanthropy?
A: Tremendously. She’s a real hero to me. Mother Teresa was also a good saleswoman. What she got from people was fantastic. But she gave the way we should give, too—without wanting anything for it—and that was her secret. I think she was the greatest humanitarian among women during my lifetime. And I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone quite as selfless.
Q: Faith has influenced your philanthropy.
A: I’ll give you my secrets. I believe that I have been guided and guarded and governed. I believe that fervently. And I’m not ashamed to ask for that guidance. People used to say I talked to myself when I was driving. Well, I was doing my thing. I used to say, every day, “Guide me, guard me, govern me, God.” And He or She did. I’ve never found anything that I couldn’t solve if I took in that intangible that we think we can’t understand. The great mystery, the great power—it’s hard to explain to someone, but it’s there.
Q: You retired from advertising to work on the Philharmonic Center, Ave Maria University, and the Salvation Army.
A: I couldn’t do the work I’m doing in philanthropy if I didn’t have the experience I had in advertising. But I didn’t ever really think of it as retiring. In fact, I don’t believe in retiring! I think whenever you close one door you should open another. Or, to use a different analogy, each step in your life and your career should be a stepping stone to the next—not a stopping point.
Whenever I go into anything, I really have to believe in it. And if I believe in it, it never dawns on me that I won’t have all the help I need to get there. That may sound a little screwy to you, but I ran a big business in Chicago on that theory—and I’ve lived my life that way.