A Personal Story Illustrates a Key Principle: It’s Not What You’re Selling; It’s What I’m Buying

Print Share on LinkedIn More

In 1990, my father died suddenly of cancer. We discovered he was sick, and then he was dead six weeks later. He died in Michigan, before I could get there.

I arrived in East Lansing a few hours after his death. That afternoon, I phoned Michigan State University (MSU) and set up a scholarship fund for travel in a French-speaking country. The fund was named for my father, Georges Jules Joyaux. He had not been dead ten hours.

Within a few weeks of my father’s death, I received solicitation letters from the national and local cancer societies. Timely and appropriate letters. Good fundraising efforts triggered by my father’s death.

And I threw each of those letters away. Why?

Too soon? No. Too impersonal? No—although a personal call probably would have generated a nominal, one-time gift from me. On paper, I looked like a prospect. But as it happened, I wasn’t. The cancer societies sold certain worthwhile things. But my interests were elsewhere.

They were selling freedom from pain, health, a cure for cancer so others would not suffer as had my father and family. They were selling protection so I might not die from this dreaded disease, protection for my husband, mother, my brothers and sisters, and my friends.

But what was I buying?

Not health. I rarely give to health organizations. Certainly, I want everyone to be healthy, myself and loved ones included. But I’m not buying health.

Not freedom from cancer. I am sorry my father died from cancer. It was ugly, as so much of death is. But I’m not buying an end to cancer.

What did I buy that afternoon when I called MSU from the living room of my parents’ home?

My French heritage. Love and respect for different cultures, as taught by my father. Joy of travel to other countries. Commitment to education, as I looked at all of the teachers in our family. A warmth toward MSU. My father came to the university as a young man from war-torn France. There, he met my mother and taught for 41 years. All six of us kids went to school there. Love and admiration for my father, his vision of a world where pluralism is honored, his wit and sarcasm, his intelligence and eloquence, his strengths and weaknesses, his love for teaching and his students.

Cancer took him. But it did not define him.

So, my mother and the six Joyaux kids set up a scholarship fund in Georges’ name. Each year, an MSU student receives funds to study in a French-speaking country. The country doesn’t have to be France, only French-speaking. An academic curriculum isn’t necessary; traveling and experiencing are what count. My father always reminded everyone: “The most important thing is to step out of your linguistic ghetto and become aware that there are people who live, eat, learn, and make love in a medium which is not English.”

It amuses me to think of Georges’ reaction to his fund. He would laugh and make a smart remark. But he would remember the students. I think he would be pleased.

With the scholarship, the students receive a description of my father and what he accomplished in his lifetime. I trust they read it.

I tell this story around the country when I teach and consult. I ask people what they think the cancer society is selling. People are so gracious. They use polite words and euphemisms. It takes a while before anyone gets to the nitty-gritty: protection from death—better yet, protecting me personally and others that I care about from dying.

People are just as gracious when they talk about what I’m buying. They always emphasize the honoring of my heritage, my father, and his beliefs. Sure, that’s a part of it. But then I laugh. Irreverently, I proclaim, “Just honoring my father and my heritage? I bought a house in France, and that’s sure not for my dead father! This gift is about me and my interests. I love France, and I’m committed to pluralism.”

You have to look deep. Get down to the essential, not just the surface

  • Susan McDermott

    Full disclosure: I am Simone Joyaux’s acquisitions editor here at Wiley. We’ve worked together for many years. But I did not know she was writing this piece–I only by chance discovered it. I also did not know this story. But I am constantly reminded of what a small world we live in… on Father’s Day, I posted my own story about my deeply loved and missed father on our Nonprofit Community site (http://www.nonprofitcommunity.com/index.php/2012/06/15/from-the-editors-desk-why-do-people-give/). The similarities are there, both large and small. Two families compelled to give in order to honor the memory of a loved one. My dad had cancer as well–as so many people do. And guess what? My father’s name was also George! Thanks for sharing your story, Simone. I enjoyed reading it.

  • david

    This sorry is a compelling example of the power of the first-person singular. 🙁

  • Dusty Rhodes

    Thank you for writing this. Very helpful to hear this angle on the ‘why’ behind generosity.

  • Mary Francis

    What a useless piece. Do I think the variety of cancer orgs are wrong for mailing to her? Nope. Do I think that if I were an advisor or fundraiser to a cancer org I would advise them not to do this? Nope. Do I care where and why she gave and think it resonates? Nope-it was a personal decision. Of course they gave to the University-they had a personal connection there. Do I think that since, oh 1990, the cancer orgs have grown, evolved and changed both in their fundraising and the programs they offer? Yeah, I kind of hope so.

  • Helmer N. Ekstrom

    Thank you for sharing this, Simone. Your story reminds those of us who work with donors to think beyond simply selling a standard fare memorial gift (or any other off-the-shelf gift desired by the charity) to helping a donor find and achieve the right charitable objective(s) most meaningful to them.

  • Robyn McIntyre

    At first I thought the last and next to last paragraphs contradicted themselves. But then I realize that the gift in which she honored her own interests has its roots in the love of her father’s native country and his dedication to pluralism. Maybe fundraisers are not the only ones who should look deep into the essential. “Just” honoring… no, I don’t think so.

  • Kathi Jaworski

    Interesting article that challenges what I think is an abhorrent practice anyway. I am offended to witness that some charities scour “fresh” obituaries for potential donors based on the cause of death. I’ve told my family that when my time comes, I don’t want the cause of death to be specified in the obituary exactly for this reason. I don’t want to have them bombarded with crass solicitations at an emotionally vulnerable time.

    This doesn’t mean that I won’t support a health charity (I have and do) but I want to do it on my terms, I am curious if those who do think there’s nothing wrong with this type of obit-solicitation have figured out how to do it with sensitivity and grace. To me, the indicator of that would be their capacity to sustain new donors whose first gift was made in response to a obituary-timed request.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for all your comments. Helmer, how nice to hear from you. I remember working with your local education fund back when you were the CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

    This story is about donor-centrism: the importance of learning about the donor or prospect’s interests and helping the donor fulfill his or her own aspirations. I think it is appropriate for cancer organizations to ask just about everyone for a gift. Because all of us have probably experienced cancer in some way. I don’t even think it’s ghoulish to read obituaries. I suspect that I might have been solicited by a cancer organization – possibly from some random list of people – without the organization even knowing that my dad had died of cancer.

    But I don’t choose to give to cancer. Never have. Likely never will. My interests are different – even though my own father died of cancer. Good fundraising is donor centered. Good fundraisers know that fundraising is not about money; it’s about the hearts and minds and souls of donors. Good fundraising – especially asking prospects and donors for what they consider to be larger gifts – really depends upon understanding the prospect/donor interests.

    Good fundraisers want to know their donors’ stories. Good fundraisers collect stories. Successful fund development programs operate with a donor-centered orientation. You’re right, Robin, this gift is not about honoring my father. It’s about my values and my interests. My father introduced me to those values and interests. I didn’t have to embrace them – but I did. And I expanded on them in my own life.

  • Pamela White

    Your article lacked depth. You didn’t look any deeper than your own personal feelings. In the end, you felt it was valuable to do something for yourself. How insight is that?

  • Simone Joyaux

    All giving (of time or money) is personal, Pamela. People give to what interests them. Some people are interested in the environment – but not everyone is interested in the environment….even though we all want clean air to breath and clean water to drink. Some people give to their college alma mater – but not everyone who went to college gives to their alma mater….even though education is a major influence on a person’s qualify of life. Some people give to the local hospital – but not everyone is gives to the local hospital….even though everyone wants a good hospital nearby.
    One of the beauties of philanthropy is that different people (and foundations and corporations) have different interests. That’s a fundamental truth of philanthropy and life in general. Effective organizations and effective fundraisers understand and respect this fundamental truth. There are millions of wonderful nonprofit organizations around the world doing important work. Each person (foundation or corporation) picks their own interest(s) and then invests.

  • Pamela Curtis


    Wonderful story. It certainly makes clear the point that value is in the eye of the beholder.