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The story behind National Philanthropy Day

A group of volunteers with surgical masks cleaning nature together

Most fundraisers and many other staff and volunteers in the nonprofit sector know about National Philanthropy Day (NPD) and enthusiastically embrace it.

More than 130 Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) chapters celebrate the observance all across the United States and even internationally.

The official day that National Philanthropy Day is observed is November 15, though local chapters have the flexibility to pick and choose dates that best suit their market. Most celebrations are highlighted by award gatherings to salute leadership roles played by the full spectrum of heroes including individual philanthropists, volunteers, professionals, businesses, organizations, and youth. It has blossomed into the nonprofit sector’s version of the “Oscars.”

But do you know how National Philanthropy Day came to be? I didn’t until recently.

It started with an unsung hero who first proposed the idea and backed it up with five years of amazing devotion, energy, and leadership.

That hero is Doug Freeman, a tax attorney based in Los Angeles, who made philanthropy a prime component of their estate planning with high wealth individuals. The idea came to them in February 1981 as they gave a speech to major patrons of the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, MN, thanking them for their generosity. Freeman felt something very important was missing.

In philanthropy, we often reflect on the question: “Can just one person make a difference?”

Freeman is one of the countless examples of a resounding yes! Their commitment to the project captured the spirit of philanthropy at its finest—creativity, focus, and persistence to turn the dream into reality.

Freeman took full advantage of an opportunity when driving President Reagan’s political advisor Lyn Nofziger to the airport after a philanthropy event in Orange County, CA. Nofziger asked Freeman if there was any way they could help them. Freeman was armed with a letter they had sent to Ed Meese (Reagan’s Chief of Staff) proposing NPD.

The fire was now lit. Freeman was invited to meet with former Congressman Jim Coyne who had been appointed by Reagan to staff the first White House office focused on philanthropy. Freeman explained the concept and the why. Coyne listened and said, “You know, that’s a very good idea. If you can get this through Congress, I will see to it that the President looks at this and hopefully he’ll sign it.”

Now, Freeman was on an unwavering mission that no one could stop. They rallied the support of leading philanthropy organizations in the nation. Freeman made 30 or 40 trips to Washington over five years to meet with U.S. Representatives and Senators to request their support. They sent over 4,000 letters, according to their assistant who typed them. Freeman strategically created lobby groups in the 50 states and tasked each with obtaining Congressional support for this commemorative day. The primary opposition was based on the sentiment that there were already too many commemorative days. All the hard work paid off handsomely.

The dream became reality when President Reagan signed the first official proclamation on November 15, 1986, designating a day within the season for giving thanks. The AFP, through its 32,000 members and more than 240 chapters across North America and around the world, assumed responsibility for coordinating and supporting celebrations. To this day, AFP chapters continue to work with local charitable and community organizations to magnify the impact.

Freeman wasn’t content to stop there. They believed that the day deserved its own song and recruited the most popular composer of the day, Marvin Hamlisch, to write “Now, More Than Ever.”

It’s fitting that National Philanthropy Day was founded by an unsung hero because American philanthropy is full of unsung heroes who drive the success of 1.5 million nonprofits in this country that touch, improve, and save more lives.

Like many other cities, on NPD, San Antonio’s AFP chapter has hosted annual luncheons to salute leading philanthropists in a broad range of categories.

Typically, the youth being honored provide thought provoking perspectives. I vividly remember the words of a 10-year-old girl who was honored several years ago. In their acceptance remarks, they said something so on target that I like referring to it in all my workshops, webinars, and board training sessions: “Start by claiming the first three letters of fundraising, F-U-N, for the winning attitude to carry out your activities to raise money.” To put it another way, if the solicitor doesn’t enjoy asking for gifts of time and money, I can assure you that the donor prospect won’t enjoy it either.

Freeman still passionately shares the precious gifts of time, talent, and treasure. They serve as founding Executive Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Orange County Music and Dance, located in Irvine, CA. He also serves on the boards of three private foundations.

Freeman is far from being alone. Philanthropy—and particularly the generosity of the American people—has consistently responded to all sorts of challenges, especially the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. A record $471 billion was raised for good causes in 2020, according to Giving USA. That works out to nearly $1 million a minute. This impact is reinforced and extended by the most precious gift of all: Time. It is estimated that some 63 million Americans—25 percent of the adult population—volunteered about 8 billion hours to further advance their favorite causes.

Be sure to thank all those who make the amazing work of the nonprofit sector possible and touch, improve, and save more lives on November 15 and the 364 other days of the year. And thank you to Doug Freeman for their vision and inspiration and serving so effectively as the founder of NPD.


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