Philanthropy Blog: Giving In 2020 – Lessons from Dolly Parton

November 23, 2020

As I sat down to write a post about year end giving from my remote home office, I had a thousand different thoughts I wanted to share. How could you sum up charitable giving in 2020 in a short blog post? Then I read a Washington Post article about how Dolly Parton’s chance encounter at Vanderbilt University Medical Center after a 2013 minor car crash led to an enduring friendship with Naji Abumrad, a physician and professor of surgery. According to the story, the two struck up a friendship based on shared experiences growing up in rural poverty, and a mutual interest in and love of science. When the pandemic hit, Dolly Parton turned to her friend Dr. Abumrad, who told her about promising research happening at Vanderbilt. The result was a six figure gift to the research at Vanderbilt in honor of Dr. Abumrad. This research was linked directly to the recently-announced success of the development of a coronavirus vaccine that could be available by year end. Dolly Parton’s response: “I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else, and when I donated the money to the Covid fund, I just wanted it to do good.” I’ve worked with donors to craft gifts of all shapes and sizes, and this statement sums up the intent of nearly every donor, whether you are giving $25 or $1 million. More than anything else this year, the spirit of generosity remains true. The building blocks of supporting good work about which you are passionate and with organizations that can be effective at making change is the approach we take with clients, no matter the year or the issue. This year has called upon donors to dig deep and in some ways to radically reimagine how they do their giving, while remaining true to the core of helping others.

So what have we taken away from this year, as we enter the last month of the year and as Giving Tuesday approaches.

  • Immediate response is important, and so is follow up for the long term. In the early days of the pandemic, like any “disaster,” emergency grants flowed from individuals, foundations, corporations, and donor advised fund holders. As the pandemic endures, donors are coming back asking good questions about how their funds can be used to help nonprofits and communities in need not only endure this, but recover and be resilient once the pandemic subsides.
  • Being aware of implicit bias and injustice has always been important, but in the wake of the most recent racial reckoning this year, donors are asking hard questions about how they can make changes to their processes and lift the veil on those biases. Some are looking at how they do their giving and who is making decisions about providing services to those in need, and some are growing their giving to ensure that it reflects a broader diversity of lived experience.
  • Donors are staying close to organizations they care about, and ensuring those organizations have strong plans in place to recover from this challenging year. At the same time, many recognize that this is the proverbial “rainy day” and is a year to dig deep to help a broad array of organizations.
  • As always, relationships matter. Talk to your contacts and networks who are scientists and educators and health care professionals and artists and social workers. Learn what is happening on the ground, and how you can best help from the people who know best from doing the work every day. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions, either of them or of yourself.
  • Be humble and grateful. When you approach this work with humility and a spirit of gratitude, good things will come.

Wishing everyone who reads this health, safety, and gratitude in this most unusual of years.

About the Author

Gioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services.

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