The Joy of Giving

Rachel Levitt writer

During the holiday season, the spirit of giving to others prevails in communities across the country. Whether it’s giving in the form of holiday gifts to our friends and loved ones or giving our time and money to those less fortunate, this is the one time of year when many people are willing to write a check to their favorite cause or volunteer at a homeless shelter. But in Wellesley and Weston, we are fortunate to have many individuals and families who devote their time and money to help others twelve months a year.

Why do some people devote their lives to giving back and making a difference in the lives of others? Giving is no easy thing; it requires a strong belief in humanity, and the belief that others will not only benefit from our efforts, but will perhaps be inspired to be engaged in community efforts as well.

I spoke to Weston philanthropists Steve and Joan Belkin, Doug and Julie Macrae, Kathan Tracy, the co-director of locally based Crossroads Community Foundation, and Francis Hunnewell of Wellesley, to gain a deeper understanding of the different ways that people return their gifts to others and why the joy of giving has become central to their lives.

First, some history: the town of Wellesley itself was founded on philanthropy. Horatio Hollis Hunnewell, the successful 19th-century industrialist who cared deeply for this rolling, forested piece of Massachusetts, gave the town hall (an approximate copy of his own home, designed by his cousin), the library, and the land for Wellesley College. For all his generosity, the town was named after his estate, “Wellesley,” originally based on his wife’s maiden name, Welles. In those days, new neighbors would be welcomed with the clip-clop of Hunnewell’s horse coming down their drive. It was the “old man” bringing the gift of a sapling to the fledgling Wellesleyans, requesting that they plant it somewhere on their property. An avid horticulturist, he imported diverse trees from Asia and Europe, and planted them everywhere, eventually establishing the Hunnewell Arboretum in the 1840s to preserve the legacy of his gardens and rare specimens.

Skip forward to 2006 and join Francis Hunnewell, the sixty-something great great-grandson of H.H. Hunnewell, on his porch on a sunny September morning. He is tall, athletic, and serious minded. Raised in a stone castle-like estate on a hill, he spent his twenties and thirties living in Asia and Europe working as an investment banker. In the early eighties he returned to Wellesley to tend to his aging father and make sure his children got a stateside high school education. A businessman to the core, he recognized the liability of holding onto the land his forebears had preserved. Soaring property values in Wellesley made transferring large tracts prohibitively expensive. And around the country, landed families had sold off their properties and pocketed the cash. Very tempting to do the same, but the Hunnewells are a unique family. Deep within, they understand that preserving the estates is the greatest philanthropic gesture to the community that bears their name.

Hunnewell is a true steward of the land. He has spent the past twenty-five years protecting the properties from subdivision and subsequent development. In most cases, he labored to devalue the land by giving it conservation status. The houses themselves, eight grand homes and thirty smaller homes, have been separated from the land to make their values manageable and decrease the tax burden. A trust was established to maintain the properties while new owners within the family could be found.

From the air, the properties look like Central Park, a lovely tree-filled landscape for everyone to enjoy. To maintain this gift to Wellesley, Hunnewell and his cousins work constantly to meet the resultant tax burden. Throughout the generations, they have committed themselves to a true philanthropy, to keep the properties whole, the starting point of our story.

Giving comes in many permutations. When Steve and Joan Belkin were first starting out, they didn’t have money but they did have time, and they still consider it to be their most valuable resource.

The Belkins volunteered as coaches for their children’s schools, because it was a way for them to give while staying close to their progeny. As they became successful, their friends introduced them to the many local organizations seeking time and donations. The Belkins latched onto a few charities including the Boston Medical Center and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, committing funds and creativity to leverage their philanthropic efforts. “I’m an entrepreneur,” explained Steve Belkin during a phone interview, “I started 26 businesses, [and so] I bring vision and passion to these causes. When we got involved with the Anti-Defamation League (whose purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens), we wanted to help community leaders learn about discrimination first-hand. Working with Lenny Zakim, the then executive director of the New England regional ADL, we chartered an airplane and flew 150 community leaders to Washington, D.C. to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.” Now in its fourteenth year, the program has introduced over 2000 people to the exhibits.

“Stockpiling doesn’t fill you up,” Joan Belkin explained. “Our family mantra is: you get more from giving than getting.” That is why the Belkins dedicate so much of their time and energy to their chosen charities. Their latest projects combine business and philanthropy, including the purchase of Lookout Farm in Natick, the oldest continually working farm in the United States and a major outdoor destination for local families. When the farm came up for sale last year, developers immediately eyed the 200 acres of prime real estate. Understanding that the loss of the farm to development would be a tragic turn for the region, the Belkins committed themselves to saving this agricultural remnant thereby ensuring that families would continue to enjoy locally-grown, organic fruits and vegetables. Steve Belkin also purchased two Atlanta sports teams, the Hawks (an NBA franchise), and the Thrashers (an NHL franchise), as a community-building venture. He points out that spectator sports bring together all ethnicities and generations, and for the short time the game is on, people put aside their differences to root for their team together. He believes that some will take these lessons beyond the stadium and go to work for fairness and less discrimination in the future.

Doug Macrae dropped out of MIT to develop Ms. Pac-man. By age 23 he had amassed quite a fortune. Growing up in a wealthy family in Short Hills, New Jersey, he had learned from an early age about the importance of giving. Each year his grandmother gave money to her grandchildren to donate to a cause and required that they write a report of where they chose to give and why they believed that charity benefited society. Julie Macrae, his wife, never had money growing up. Her mother survived on welfare and food stamps. Macrae was the first person in her family to go to college, only able to afford it with significant loans and multiple jobs. “I had a giving heart but nothing to give,” she told me in her home in Weston. She married Doug in 1993 and has lived by the saying, “For those who receive, much is required.” Like the Belkins, Doug and Julie Macrae believe that giving money is not enough. They donate their time, their home, and their expertise to all the organizations to which they contribute.

The Macraes are faith-based philanthropists. They give to Grace Chapel, their non-denominational church in Lexington. Both Julie and Doug are on the board of Home Improvement Ministries (H.I.M.), an organization with the mission to “equip, encourage, and bring hope to churches, families, and marriages as they seek to establish and live out biblical designs for relationships.” As part of their work with H.I.M, the Macraes host “Engagement Matters” weekends at their home in Weston to help engaged or pre-engaged couples become better equipped for marriage. They are dedicated to education, giving generously to their own schools and paying college and graduate school tuition for family and friends in need. They also support Athletes in Action, an organization founded in 1966 that provides ministry to college and professional athletes and coaches, and Agape International. Doug is currently Chairman of the Board for Agape, an organization founded in 2003 in response to the great need for orphanages and care dedicated to children and families in India suffering as a result of the growing AIDS crisis in Asia.

With so many organizations in need and so many requests for time and money, how does one know where and how to give? Wellesley residents Kathan Tracy and Judy Salerno are co-executive directors of Crossroads Community Foundation. Tracy says, “It’s easy to find big organizations to give to, like colleges and independent schools, but there are a lot of small nonprofits that are lower profile.” That’s where Crossroads comes in. Based in Natick and serving the 27 towns and cities known as “Metrowest,” this tax-exempt public charity raises funds and distributes them to local organizations in the form of grants. People interested in giving locally but feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of charities from which to choose can either select a Crossroads interest-based fund or start a new one for a given area. Crossroads administers each donor’s fund separately but pools those assets into one large and diversified portfolio for investment purposes. Crossroads does all the work, evaluating need, tax reporting, and distributing grants from these funds to local nonprofit organizations in accordance with the wishes of the donors. Tracy continues, “There’s a real education process to giving. You need to become much more strategic like Bill Gates and his family. They don’t deviate and that’s how they are effective.”

Because we live in affluent communities, a continuing theme expressed by parents is the desire to make our young people sympathetic to the needs of others and to educate them on how to work together to help those less fortunate. According to author Susan Crites Price in her book The Giving Family: Raising Our Children to Help Others (Council on Foundations, 2003), parents can help their children become caring adults by planting the seeds early about charitable giving through stories and activities, and by serving as role models for them. Family volunteering, community service through school, church activities, and youth organizations are ways in which a philanthropic education can be fostered.
Crossroads takes this idea one step further with their Youth in Philanthropy Program. In it, high school students are encouraged to understand the needs and challenges of the community and to learn about the work of nonprofit organizations and the process of writing grants. Students from the Rivers School and Weston High School take part in this twelve-week course that meets after school and teaches teens what the nonprofit sector does. They learn how to read budgets and actual grant proposals, then visit the charities to determine whether the organizations are set up to achieve their prospective goals. Crossroads allocates $10,000 of its resources to these students to distribute at the end of the course, usually in the form of two to three grant recipients. Most of the organizations are operating on a shoestring budget and the young philanthropists “can really make a difference with a little money,” says Tracy.

Learning how to give is an invaluable experience. One of the Youth in Philanthropy graduates said, “I never knew there was so much need right here in my backyard.” This is true for anyone who has decided to give back. The need for help in the world is overwhelming and can often discourage the budding philanthropist. I learned from these extremely generous benefactors, however, that giving begins at home. Look around and decide what it is that you care about, because giving money is never enough. To truly invest in an organization, it is important to provide the gift of your time. In fact, just talking about an organization with friends is often enough to trigger a chain of small donations. Steve Belkin coined the term, “friend raising” to refer to how enthusiasm can sometimes bring life-long commitments. As a board member of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Belkin encourages fundraisers and friends to see donation-raising as an opportunity to educate others about the profound need right here in Boston, and create a community around an organization committed to common goals.

Summer 2023