UNO Alumni Magazine story

Giving is Good: Want to feel good? Give.

By Greg Kozol

One day a stranger stopped Bill Conley in a mall parking lot and asked for a few dollars to get fuel for his car.

Conley thought briefly about the typical reaction to this sort of encounter: Ignore the man. Walk away. Maybe he’s lying.

Instead, Conley reached into his pocket and handed over $50. No questions asked. No judgment made.

“Yes, I think I can help you out,” said Conley, the vice chancellor of business and finance at UNO.

Perhaps the man went to the nearest gas station and filled up his tank. Maybe he didn’t.

For Conley, it was never about the money. It was about making a connection with someone in need and making that person feel valued.

Since turning 50 last year, Conley has given $50 every week to a different person or organization — from Dhiraj the convenience store clerk to a sheriff’s deputy diagnosed with cancer. The stranger in the parking lot was part of Conley’s 12-month experiment, called “Giving 50×52 — A yearlong journey of giving.”

“This is a lot different than writing a check to an organization,” he says. “This is another form of giving that is more important to people. The impact is not financial. The money is just the hook.”

Ask who walked away the happier man that day — Conley or the stranger with $50 — and it might very well be a toss-up.

“Philanthropy is, in some ways, more of a benefit to the giver than the receiver,” says Angela Eikenberry, associate professor of public administration at UNO. “There is research that shows that people are happier, more engaged. There is a lot of benefit for the giver.”

A Country of Givers
Americans love to say that they’re generous people — and the numbers back that up. Total charitable contributions reached $298 billion in 2011, according to Giving USA, an annual report compiled on U.S. philanthropy. These donations — a 4 percent increase from the previous year — benefit everything from global anti-poverty campaigns to small fundraisers that keep the lights on at local charities.

For most donors, the decision to give is deeply personal. Individuals account for about 75 percent of U.S. philanthropy, with much of the rest coming from foundations and corporations.

“People tend to give because they are connected,” says Eikenberry, whose research focuses on non-profits and philanthropy. “They tend to give to what they’re passionate about.”

For Frank Staskiewicz Jr., the ink on his diploma was barely dry when he started giving back to UNO. He has made regular financial contributions to the university ever since receiving his bachelor’s degree in business in December 1986.

He developed a strong sense of school pride from working himself through UNO with little government assistance.

“I was one of the first ones on my dad’s side of the family to get a college degree,” says Staskiewicz, 52 and director of systems and administration for Springfield Platteview Community Schools. “I did it on my own. It’s always nice to help someone else out.”

Tim Harrison, a UNO graduate and owner of Harrison Financial Services in Omaha, advises clients who make charitable giving part of their long-term financial plans. He believes a desire to reduce tax liability plays a secondary role in motivating his clients, many of whom are in the top income bracket.

“They’ve been treated well in their lives,” says Harrison, who has earned a professional designation as a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy. “People have helped them get there and they want to give back.”

Changes in Charity
While philanthropy taps into a long-held human desire to help others, modern challenges have changed some dynamics.

Eikenberry has noticed that givers are more collaborative. She has studied a phenomenon known as giving circles, which involves groups of donors pooling resources to maximize the impact. She wrote “Giving Circles: Philanthropy, Voluntary Association, and Democracy” in 2009.

At the same time, technology has made the act of mailing a check seem outdated. At the nation’s biggest charities, online donations exceeded $12 billion in 2010. More organizations are embracing cause-based marketing, which allows a percentage of sales of a certain product to go to charity.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the reality that people can’t donate money they don’t have.

When the economy slides, charities and nonprofits find themselves pinched between rising demand and declining donations. The Giving USA report found that total charitable contributions dropped in 2008 and 2009, the height of the recession.

“When the economy takes a hit, people shift their giving,” Eikenberry says. “There is a lot more need. That’s a challenge.”

Eikenberry says charity, while well-meaning, sometimes isn’t effective in sending resources to the poorest neighborhoods or other areas where the money is needed most. It becomes a dilemma as a larger percentage of budgets for nonprofits and schools comes from voluntary contributions rather than government support.

“This shift is saying we need to rely on people voluntarily,” she says. “It’s kind of problematic. People don’t necessarily give to areas where the need is greatest.”

Still, there’s no question charitable giving has a tremendous impact, and not just for the recipient.

Harrison believes those who give the most end up being happier and more successful.

“I find a lot of our clients who are most generous throughout their lives tend to end up with the most,” he says. “It’s kind of counter-intuitive. These people tend to see a lot of it coming back.”

Conley is reminded of this every week. He admits it hasn’t gotten any easier walking up to a complete stranger with an offer of $50, but the experience has opened his eyes to opportunities to help others.

He even gave away $50 after backing into the groom’s car prior to a wedding.

“I’m doing something crazy to get out of the norm,” Conley says. “It wasn’t to preach. It’s not to tell anyone how to live their lives. I feel I’ve really grown from it.”

See more about Conley’s giving experiment at

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