What makes a great gift… 100 years later?


Kristin Majeska

The other day a small bronze plaque in the brick of our town’s modest (but wonderful) public library stopped me dead. The plaque read ‘This building is a gift of Andrew Carnegie to the City of Waterville, AD 1905’. ‘107 years later’, I thought, ‘in an era of Kindles and games on telephones, here’s my son, skipping along happily because he just picked out five easy readers from the library shelves.’ Carnegie’s gift of 1,689 free public libraries across the US still fosters education and opportunities today.

Barcelona’s magnificent concert hall, the Palau Música Catalana, would not have been built without gifts from wealthy industrials who added to the money collected by Barcelona’s citizens in 1908. After 104 years, more than half a million people annually still enjoy performances beneath the stained glass skylight of the exuberant modernista-style hall.

What makes a great gift 100 years later? The first images that rushed through my head were of buildings. But fabulous buildings are neither necessary nor sufficient for great, lasting gifts. Yes, Jane and Leland Stanford donated the land and structures that made up the university they named for their deceased son in 1891. But it’s also because of their philosophy, involvement and commitment to paying the university’s costs and initially offering free tuition that Stanford University is now one of the top centres for higher learning in the world

Then I thought of Chicago’s Hull House, which operated for 123 years before its recent bankruptcy. Its founder, the social reformer Jane Addams, brought in private donors to support a new model of neighborhood community services that built bridges between working-class immigrants and the middle class. This social activist model gave rise to the modern figure of ‘social worker’, spawned 500 similar programs and led to social reforms from the creation of juvenile courts to unemployment compensation and child labour laws.

In a different arena, National Geographic, a key actor in research, popular education and protecting the earth and fragile communities throughout the world, thrives today thanks to gifts and leadership from the lawyer and philanthropist Gardiner Greene Hubbard beginning in 1888.

What make those gifts so valuable to us even after 100 years? A few thoughts:

  • They respond to stirring, ambitious dreams: a belief that every person should have free access to books, a vital and visible Catalan cultural movement, a school in the backwater of California that could rival Harvard and MIT, a vision that middle- and working-class people could be powerful allies for improving conditions for all.
  • They could evolve to stay relevant: the photos of National Geographic magazine have always been groundbreaking, as are their videos today, Andrew Carnegie gave free rein to communities to introduce the changes they needed, the Palau now hosts world-class musicians from across the globe, Jane Stanford handed the reins of the university over to a board of trustees that has overseen its dramatic expansion, Hull House left behind its residential model and adapted to the needs of modern immigrants.
  • Those who benefit have the opportunity to enrich what the funders began: Stanford alums secured a legal decision that enabled the university to continue in the 1900s and are very generous donors today, Hull House operated on the principle that all community members pitch in, Carnegie mandated that every community levy taxes to purchase books and operate the libraries he build on their behalf.

What other characteristics should we keep in mind as design our gifts to be ‘great’ 100 years from now?

Kristin Majeska is partner at Philanthropic Intelligence.

Tagged in: Andrew Carnegie Great gifts Hull House National Geographic Public libraries Stanford University

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