Column: There’s a Profound Connection Between Giving and Receiving

West Lebanon

The longer I work in the field of fundraising (going on 35 years now), the more I ponder the profound connection between giving and receiving. While in a reflective mood the other day, I jotted down the most important lessons I had ever learned about these things, and I realized that all of them came from my long association with Mary Feeney.

Currently the team leader at the Upper Valley Haven’s shelter for single adults, Feeney has pretty much devoted her life to helping people in poverty and the crisis of homelessness. Years ago, she and her husband, Paul, were the Haven’s “host family.” They raised their two children in the tiny apartment nestled in beside the old farmhouse that served as the shelter.

Here’s what I know about giving and receiving, courtesy of Mary:

Rule 1: People cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps until you give them boots.

If emerging from poverty were simply a matter of will, there would be no poverty. Mary and the other Haven staff were gifted in discovering the limitations and barriers to each family’s success and pointing them to resources where obstacles could be removed. Sometimes that was as simple as providing emergency housing or teaching budgeting or critical thinking. Often, it was demonstrating the importance of setting limits with children or the satisfaction that comes from keeping a living space tidy and clean. Or the roadblocks could be more complex, such as mental or physical illness. Successes came in three sizes: miraculous, incremental and infinitesimal. All were celebrated at the Haven.

Rule 2: It is necessary to help both the grateful and the ungrateful.

This is not to suggest that Mary ever let anybody talk back to her. However, it was clear to her that not everyone is capable of gratitude at a given moment, or maybe even ever.

What was important to Mary was not the appreciation of the receiver, but the thankfulness of the giver. This priority led to ...

Rule 3: “Always try to give from a place of gratitude and abundance,” she told me. “It works so much better.”

She also taught me that the satisfaction of receiving others’ gratitude is sometimes sweeter when it is not expressed immediately. I remember being told by one former shelter guest eight years after her stay, “The thing that turned my life around was when Mary threw me out of the shelter for breaking the rules. For the first time in my life, I knew that someone cared enough about me to hold me accountable for my actions.”

As a pretty obsessive budget-minder, I remember being skeptical about Mary’s occasional “relaxed” enforcement of the food shelf rule requiring a referral from a church or social service agency in order for groceries to be given out. When I called her on it, she looked me straight in the eye and delivered what is ...

Rule 4: “It is better to give a bag of groceries in error to 10 people who don’t really need it, than to mistakenly refuse one person who is truly hungry,” she said.

Wishing you a joyous Thanksgiving holiday weekend. May generosity, gratitude and appreciation accompany you wherever life leads you.

Suzanne D. Stofflet is the interim vice president of the Upper Valley Region office of the Granite United Way. She can be reached at