Celebrating Oseola McCarty and her Legacy of Planned Giving

Cynthia Reddrick, guest author and philanthropy expert.

Editor’s Note: It gives me great pleasure to introduce Cynthia Reddrick as a guest contributor to Philanthropy Women. As a women’s philanthropy scholar and experienced planned giving consultant, Reddrick invites us to celebrate Black Philanthropy Month by honoring Oseola McCarty, a Black female philanthropist who left an inspiring legacy of generosity.

August is Black Philanthropy Month (BPM), an opportunity to amplify the power and influence of Black women donors and philanthropists. Created in August 2011 by Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland and the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network (PAWPNet), Black Philanthropy Month allows us to take time to globally celebrate African-descent giving.

BPM’s co-founders invite all Black communities and their allies to take August to promote the power of giving to transform lives. The primary aims of BPM (#BPM2019) are informing, involving, inspiring and investing in Black philanthropic leadership to strengthen African-American and African-descent giving in all its forms. A new organizing concept frames the BPM campaign each year. The theme for 2019 is: Let’s Make History. 

With this theme in mind, it is apropos to pay homage to the philanthropic leadership of the late Oseola McCarty, whom I assert is a fitting role model for all women donors.

It might surprise you to know that well before Oprah went public with her celebrity philanthropy, there was another Black woman from Mississippi who lead the way to unlocking the generosity of others. Miss McCarty made history in 1995 as an unlikely benefactor and inspiring figure during the early days of the Internet. Based on the largesse she contributed – and significance of her lifetime gift – nonprofit fundraisers are inclined to designate her as a “stretch giver”. But that would be shortsighted. 

By donating much of her life’s savings and announcing the gift shortly after, Miss Oseola McCarty also catalyzed a community of givers to join her in their support of a $150,000 scholarship fund established for Black students at the University of Southern Mississippi. This sum was, at the time, the largest gift the college had received from an African-American donor. Miss McCarty’s gift was all the more significant because it was the result of decades of literal toil and the accumulation of meager wages earned as a washerwoman who never had the opportunity to finish middle school. 

The extraordinary part of her legacy is not this largesse, noteworthy as it was. An elderly Black woman philanthropist from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who was not wealthy, has also provided a guiding light for women donors, especially Black women, who wish to further ignite their charitable giving. As we become more recognized and sought after for our philanthropic potential in the twenty-first century, this is also an opportune time to consider how engaging in legacy planning can further catalyze Black women’s philanthropy. Given the current political climate, those of us whose individual donations and collective giving helps to sustain women-led and minority-serving organizations, including women’s and girls’ causes, may feel a particular urgency. Let this sensibility motivate your planning, no matter the size of your assets. 

Miss Oseola was untraditional in the execution of her deferred gift to the university. She planned her gift, told the college about it and exhibited philanthropic vision with the simple, but deft strategy of a woman who endeavored to make an impact on those in her community. The acknowledgment she received as a result of sharing the news of her planned gift is instructive to women donors of all identities and intersections who want to see the social good they currently support continue beyond their active donorship. Two decades ago, she dispelled the adage that “anonymous was a woman”.

Oseola McCarty, in 1996, when she was honored at Harvard University. (Photo Credit: Jane Reed, Harvard News Office)

Miss Oseola McCarty’s legacy is one that deserves yearlong amplification within women’s philanthropy, especially during Black Philanthropy Month this August. Her philanthropic activity allowed her to act as an ambassador, a responsibility she capably shouldered, because she realized the power in telling one’s story. In this way, she gave from her substance. The gift to the university, seed money for scholarships that continue to pay dividends across southern Mississippi and beyond, was derived from her modest worldly assets. The university acknowledges her role as an institutional benefactor, so that students understand how her generosity has helped to make their educational goals a reality. The story of Oseola McCarty’s philanthropy continues to inspire future generations of givers.

Since the majority of planned giving through deferred gifts made by women has been largely untapped outside of charitable giving to religious, arts and culture and higher education institutions, a question nonprofits should be tackling is how best to democratize Black women’s legacy giving. Meanwhile, it is only fitting to highlight Oseola McCarty’s philanthropy, by reminding women about the value of legacy planning and impact of legacy giving through a bequest in your will or trust or by including your top charity(ies) as a beneficiary of a retirement account or life insurance policy. If we want to see the organizations we care about remain sustainable and healthy, it’s up to us to take the time now – and determine how we will provide for those causes in the future. 

Three Key Lessons from Oseola McCarty’s Approach to Inform Your Legacy Giving Strategy:

Lead the way: Consider how a deferred gift (from your assets) to your favorite organization could have positive impact, both short-term and long-term. Start putting your plans in place.

Tell your charity of choice about your deferred gift today: The recognition, public and/or private, you will receive can increase your gratification as a major donor and philanthropist. 

Agree to be an ambassador; you never know whom you might inspire. Miss McCarty’s willingness to have the university announce her historic gift motivated others with far greater financial means. It is well-documented that her giving in the late 1990s inspired Ted Turner, the creator of CNN, to donate $1 billion to charity. He said, “If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.” 

As this year marks the 20th anniversary of Miss McCarty’s death at the age of 91, her exceptional legacy of time, talent and treasure should not fade from our collective memory. Because when we envision philanthropic leadership, women belong at the forefront. 

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Cynthia Reddrick

Author: Cynthia Reddrick

Cynthia Reddrick has 20 years of experience in fundraising, communications and marketing within government and nonprofit sectors. Her expertise in major gifts, donor stewardship, and campaign planning/strategy has contributed to raising over $200 million in new gift pledges, with special emphasis on developing planned giving support for civil rights and social advocacy causes.

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