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JCF Blog

Cherry Blossoms

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 4/11/2018

I started my fund at the Jewish Community Foundation for purely selfish reasons, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It took me ten years of working at community foundations to understand the many ways in which a charitable fund can give meaning to the person setting it up. When I first started at a community foundation in Los Angeles, I didn’t understand at all. Why not just donate to a nonprofit? Who had that kind of extra money, that they could put money in a fund, on top of all the giving they usually did?

Over the years, working with donors of all types who gave for every reason, I started to get it. We worked with one celebrity who set up a fund to support a charitable program in every town in which he performed.

One family set up a fund from which everyone could make grants, with a family meeting every year to discuss their choices and create consensus around their giving. It became their Thanksgiving thing.

I’ve seen funds set up to support a beloved institution, long after the donor was gone. Funds that became obsolete, like polio research funds, which then morphed into medical research funds to continue their good work even after their cause had been addressed.

It took me a long time to realize that maybe a fund could help me, too.

It was 2015, and I was looking for ways to deal with a tough experience of my past and make peace with it. It had been more than 25 years, but I didn’t speak about it and had not grieved well.

I was seven when one of my brothers, Chris, passed away at age 18, after being bedridden most of his life. He had contracted meningitis at about a month old, and he never improved.

I realized that Chris’ 50th birthday would be in December 2017, and for some reason, that felt like the right milestone. A milestone of what, exactly, or how to mark it, I wasn’t sure. It loomed for a few months as I debated. A party? Not right. A charitable gift in his name? Maybe, but generic. Something to fit his personality? Problem was, I had never really known him.

I debated and debated, until the idea finally came into focus. I found myself sending an email early one morning, before I could rethink it: “I’d like to start a fund to honor my brother. I want it to go to grief support for families. I have to build it up because I don’t have the money. Can we do that?”

I walked into my colleague’s office to discuss, and burst into big, ugly sobs. For those few weeks, I said very little about the fund, mostly because I cried when I talked about it.

Then I had to name it. I didn’t want it in mine or Chris’s name, but I wanted it to mean something. After some really strange brainstorming, and conversations with my husband about meaning, memory, and honoring the dead, my husband came up with something: what about Cherry Blossoms?

Cherry blossoms, those beautiful, delicate flowers that dazzle when they bloom but only last a short time. It was perfect. That was my brother, and sadly, it is a tragic metaphor for the many beautiful children who can’t be saved and leave this earth too early.

Every month when my contribution goes into The Cherry Blossom Fund, I honor my brother’s memory. And I know that, whenever I stop contributing, the Fund will grow and do good forever.

The fund is one of the proudest things I’ve ever done. When my brother’s 50th birthday came and went this past December, having the fund – an everlasting memorial gift – made the day easier. It has made everything easier. It has been an essential part of the healing process.

We often say that giving is good for us. It’s good for our health, research shows. But it wasn’t until I saw the transformation that deeply personal gift(s) bring, that I understood. Giving fills needs we might not even know we had, allows us to express ourselves in ways that might surprise us, and yes, heals that which ails us.

I am so grateful to have discovered the power of philanthropy. Not just because of what it does for society, but because, selfishly, of what it did for me.

I’m curious – why do you give? If you had money set aside to start a fund, but the only rule was that the gift had to be deeply meaningful to you, what might you give to? What would you call it?

Go ahead, give yourself a minute to answer those questions. Who knows what you might learn in the process.

Kathryn Gonnerman is Interim President & CEO and Director, Center for Innovative Philanthropy at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford 

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Rabbi Debra Cantor
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Beautiful, Kathryn. Very moving and inspiring.
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