By Jill Warren Lucas
One Monday last August, Beth Briggs was surprised to find a curious offer sent by email to the N.C. Council for Women. The sender stated that he wanted to buy and donate a house in North Carolina to be used as a home for battered women. “It’d be nice,” he wrote, “to provide a small shelter in an area that doesn’t already have one.”
By the end of October, the donor had more than doubled his original pledge to enable agents working on his behalf to close on a property in Swan Quarter, located in rural southeast North Carolina. It now serves as the office of Hyde County Hotline and, later this year, will open its doors to women in need.
“As someone who has worked in philanthropy forever, I’ve never had that happen,” recalls Briggs, director of the Council for Women, who has a distinguished career of service on numerous nonprofit boards and serves on the External Advisory Council of the Institute for Nonprofits. “It is just one of those extraordinary gifts of people who feel a calling to make a difference. The way it all fell into place was remarkable. Everyone was at such a high level of commitment.”
The donor, a 45-year-old medical professional, agreed to talk about the gift on the condition of anonymity. “I didn’t want any recognition,” he says. “For me, it’s not relevant. It takes away from the joy, the purity of giving.
“It wasn’t just a matter of handing over a set of keys,” he adds. “When I’m old and grey, I want to be able to look at God and say I did my best to help others, to make other people’s lives easier.”
Allan Burrows, president of Capital Development Services in Winston-Salem, classified the donor’s gift as “rare and exceptional.”
“It’s not unusual to see this kind of giving from an estate,” says Burrows, an active volunteer and member of several philanthropic boards. “This person has the capacity, the ability, to make this sort of gift now. He also has the passion for this issue, because it’s personally touches his life due to others around him. And his faith is a strong catalyst of motivation.”
Before sending his email, the donor previously made gifts only to causes and people with whom he had a direct connection. That is a more typical philanthropic profile than someone who, like this humble benefactor, had no association with the recipient agency, knew no members of the board and had never even stepped foot in the area where his wealth will do so much good. “That makes for this wonderful ‘ah-ha’ surprise, which is the beauty of his gift,” Burrows says. “I have to admit, just thinking about this brings tears to my eyes.”
The motivation for the gift, as well as the somewhat urgent timing, was that the donor wanted to do something to honor his ex-wife, who he said “didn’t have a nice first husband or supportive family,” and a woman he recently met who had endured an abusive marriage. Closing by the end of October allowed him to share the news as a birthday surprise.
“There’s something about having something in your honor that makes you feel special and important,” says the donor, whose friends recently honored him by collectively donating to drill a well to provide fresh water to a small village in Africa. “It made me feel good. A lot of women really need that in their lives.”
While he lives elsewhere, the donor chose North Carolina because he considers it a beautiful, peaceful place. He started searching for a location on his own but had trouble identifying both an unfilled need and the capacity to maintain a sustainable shelter program.
Kathy Ballance, executive director of Hyde County Hotline, says a shelter plan was in early development. With limited fundraising prospects, the goal was to transform the program’s dream into a brick-and-mortar reality “20-30 years down the road.”
“When we first saw his email, it was like – is this for real? It can’t be,” Ballance says. “But when you realize it is, you’re just in awe of the whole situation. We would waver between weeping and laughing, the whole staff. Finally, the reality of it settled in and we just laughed and laughed and laughed. It brings a lot of joy.”
The donor is gratified by the response and believes this gesture could be replicated by others. “There are some good deals out there for people willing to get involved,” he says, suggesting that foreclosures and abandoned homes could be put to good use to improve disadvantaged communities. “For me, it made a lot of sense.”
Ballance says elected officials and locals are astounded by their sponsor’s big heart. “The response truly has been that they feel like it is a gift from God to the community,” she says. “Our people are very generous with support, but there is not a lot of money here. We usually have to depend on our faith to get things done.”
The deal came together quickly when the seller learned about the donor’s intent and agreed to significantly reduce his asking price. When Balance called to update the donor, he instantly increased his original $90,000 commitment to cover the entire $200,000 purchase “because he didn’t want us saddled with a mortgage.”
“This gift already has inspired others, like the seller who reduced his cost,” notes Allan Burrows. “Who knows how many people hear about this and decide they want to do something similar. That’s the great ripple effect, the joy of generosity.”
Grant funders also have been flexible about redirecting resources for this purpose, Ballance adds, and the community has stepped up to donate furniture and supplies.
The donor deflects suggestions that his action is extraordinary but hopes that his giving will inspire others to use their assets to support communities in need.
“There are a lot of good people who give freely, much more that I do. And I think there are other people who have similar opportunities,” he says. “It would be great if others who can do a little bit more.”
The donor already is working on his next project: a no-kill shelter for his mother’s hometown to honor her lifelong commitment to animal welfare.
“She always takes care of stray animals and helps people,” he says of his beloved role model. “It feels right. It feels good to support something that needs to be out there.”