November 15, 2016; Wall Street Journal

Serendipity in major charitable giving is almost a countertrend, despite near-mythical and aspirational stories of “over the transom” gifts from angel donors like reclusive millionaires and the janitor who gave his life savings to the library where he worked.

Joan Kroc was the wife, and later widow, of the man who made McDonald’s into an international megacorporation. Sure, like many extraordinarily successful people, they had a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation. But the Krocs’ charity was so personal and so publicity-averse that they not only reversed the spelling of their family name to “Cork” to disguise their philanthropy (the Cork Pavilion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Center in California is only one example), Joan dissolved the foundation in 1991 and made subsequent gifts personal ones in order to avoid the mandatory public disclosures associated with the IRS Form 990-PF that private foundations must file annually.

Some gifts were inspired by the family’s personal experiences, such as their support for research into alcoholism and addiction. Other gifts were tied to specific events, such as a $100,000 gift to the San Diego Zoo not long after the zoo successfully treated an ill hummingbird Joan Kroc brought to them for care. She sent a $5 million donation to the University of Notre Dame in honor of then-President Theodore Hesburgh’s 85th birthday. Many of these gifts were classic surprises, such as the gift of $80 million to the Salvation Army to build and support a children’s center because she heard poor kids didn’t have enough good afterschool activities in the San Diego community.

The Krocs were almost certainly solicited for major gifts all the time. However, it’s notable that their most exceptional and best-known gifts were to organizations like National Public Radio (NPR), which received $225 million upon her death despite no previous relationship. In fact, Kroc wasn’t even a public radio listener.

The book referenced in the article, Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away, doesn’t seem to provide a roadmap for enticing major donors to give. However, Ray and Joan Kroc are examples of givers who development professionals and nonprofit boards might overlook or shortchange when considering elaborate capital campaigns and major gift drives. Givers come in many sizes and styles, and the Krocs definitely had their own style. Is it possible that some donors are attracted simply by a charity, metaphorically speaking, staying at home and doing a good job executing and promoting programs rather than promoting its financial needs?—Michael Wyland