By Mike Murtagh.
Recently I had the privilege to attend the Presidential Sites Summit hosted by the White House Historical Society in Washington. It was a spectacular event. Hundreds of Presidential sites from throughout the United States were represented. The history in the room was palpable.
One of the biggest topics of discussion at the conference was the best way to obtain philanthropic support to help offset the operational expenses of the sites. Given that funds from federal and state governments have decreased throughout the years, most museums and other sites have needed the support of donors to maintain their ability to operate and tell the important story of our nation’s Presidents.
As the Senior Vice President of a Presidential Alma Mater, I have a unique perspective on the role a former President can play in raising financial support for the institution. The 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, graduated from Eureka College in 1932. From that point forward Ronald Reagan was a lifelong donor to Eureka College. Every year he gave a gift. Some were small while other gifts were rather large. During times of his life when financial stresses occurred he continued to give. One time in 1974, while Governor of California, he wrote the then President of Eureka College to say:
”One item leaves me a little embarrassed — namely the trustees’ fund. Right now I have to ask for a postponement, but assure you I mean only a postponement. As will happen, some unexpected other heavy expenses fell on our heads but hopefully this is a temporary situation.”
Ronald Reagan believed it was important to give back. He fulfilled his pledge that year and continued to give to Eureka College every year of his life.
Reagan was not alone. In fact Presidential philanthropy to higher education started with George Washington. In 1796 President Washington endowed a stock gift of $20,000 to Liberty Hall Academy. The gift saved the school and now that institution is Washington and Lee University.
Although not a president but a man who had a lot to do with the founding of our nation, Benjamin Franklin, was also a notable philanthropist. The man who said a penny saved is a penny earned lived by his words. So much so that in 1990 the cities of Boston and Philadelphia received a $6.5 million dollar bequest from his 200-year-old estate.
The list of American Presidents who were philanthropic is long and distinguished. They include Franklin D. Roosevelt and his support of the March of Dimes, Jimmy Carter and his support of Habitat for Humanity, Herbert Hoover — who was nominated five times for his philanthropic efforts especially in helping to feed the people of Belgium during WWI – to name just a few. Their lives serve as role models for all of us. They believed in the future and they believed in giving back. So when we work at raising support for the institutions and places that they loved, we are following their lead. They would have supported our efforts for in life they led the way.
In 1957, actor and television personality Ronald Reagan came home to Eureka College to give the commencement address. He returned often to campus. Reagan served for 18 years as a Trustee of the College. This is the closing of that 1957 speech:
“It will be very easy for you to say, ‘Well, I will do something someday. When I can afford it, I am going to.’ But would you let an old grad tell you one thing now? Giving is a habit. Get into the habit now, because you will never be able to afford and give and contribute, thus to repay the obligation you owe to those people who made this college possible, if you wait until you think you can afford it. Start now regardless of how small, and in the days to come when you are confronted with demands for many worthwhile causes and charities I think you will find ways to give dutifully to all the worthy ones. But here and there you will pick one or two that will be favorites, and you can do no better than to pick this, your Alma Mater, because you will not only be repaying your own personal obligations, you will be making your contribution to the very process which has made and continues to keep American great.’”
History shows that some of our greatest leaders were also some of our greatest philanthropists. Their leadership continues to guide us in working to ensure their stories are not forgotten and their belief in the future inspires us to give back and pay it forward.