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Empathy and Action: The Dual Forces of Effective Philanthropy With Melissa Komora

In this episode of You Can’t Take it With You, Melissa Komora, Vice President for Advancement at Susquehanna University, joins Jim Dunlop to delve into the heart of philanthropy. They discuss the transformative power of empathy in giving, the strategic approaches to impactful philanthropy, and the personal journeys that lead individuals to become changemakers.

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Melissa Komora is the Vice President for Advancement at Susquehanna University, an educational institution with a rich history dating back to 1858. With over 25 years of experience in the philanthropy sector, her expertise spans across arts, healthcare, and higher education fundraising. Her leadership at Susquehanna University has been marked by significant achievements, including the successful completion of a historic $185 million Give Rise campaign. This campaign has notably transformed the university, aligning with its mission and fostering substantial growth. Melissa’s role at the university involves significant engagement with the Degenstein Foundation, reflecting a long-standing and generous relationship that benefits Susquehanna University.

Jim and Melissa will discuss:

  • Melissa’s diverse career in the arts, marketing, and philanthropy
  • How Melissa’s grandmother and mother influenced her to give back
  • What usually inspires people to be philanthropic
  • The impact of philanthropy on individuals and communities
  • The blended gift strategy in the philanthropic sector
  • The importance of having a conversation about intent and dreams

Episode Summary:

Empathy and action: how do these dual forces drive effective philanthropy? Can they truly transform the landscape of giving and create a lasting impact?

Melissa Komora, a seasoned philanthropy professional with over 25 years of experience, highlights the essential role of empathy and strategic action in effective giving. She points out that genuinely understanding what inspires donors to give is key to directing their support toward impactful and meaningful projects. Melissa believes that while empathy motivates people to start giving, it’s careful and thoughtful planning that ensures these gifts make an evident, lasting difference in communities.

In this episode of You Can’t Take it With You, Melissa Komora, Vice President for Advancement at Susquehanna University, joins host Jim Dunlop to delve into the heart of philanthropy. They discuss the transformative power of empathy in giving, the strategic approaches to impactful philanthropy, and the personal journeys that lead individuals to become changemakers.

Sponsor for this episode:

This episode is brought to you by Advent Partners — a financial planning partner dedicated to helping you make informed decisions that simplify your financial journey. 

Our seasoned team of professionals is committed to guiding you toward your financial goals. We offer tailored solutions based on your specific needs, from standalone financial planning to integrated financial management.

Whether you are planning for the future, investing for growth, or navigating financial hurdles, Advent Partners is here to provide insights, recommendations, and a clear financial roadmap.

To learn more about Advent Partners and how we can guide your financial success, visit AdventPartnersFP.com.

Episode Transcript

Intro 0:00

Welcome to the You Can’t Take it With You show where we feature stories around generosity designed to inspire and encourage others to do meaningful things in their communities. Now, here’s your host, Jim Dunlop.

Jim Dunlop 0:17

Hi Jim Dunlop here, wealth advisor and host of this show where I sit down with people who get it when it comes to generosity. I’m excited to have guests who can give us stories of generosity to not only inspire listeners, but to give practical ideas on ways we can give. Today’s guest is Melissa Komora. But before we get to Melissa, I want to share that this episode is brought to you by Advent Partners. Get ready for good. Advent is a financial planning team dedicated to helping you make informed decisions that simplify your financial journey. Advent’s seasoned team of professionals is committed to guiding you toward your financial goals. We offer tailored solutions based on your specific needs from standalone financial planning to integrated financial management. We help our clients get ready for good. Whether you’re planning for the future, investing for growth or navigating financial hurdles, Advent Partners is here to provide insights, recommendations and a clear financial roadmap. To learn more about Advent Partners and how we can guide your financial success, visit readyforgood.com. 

I really admire Melissa for my own personal work at Susquehanna University. I’m excited to speak to her today. I’ve known Melissa for a little over six years, and I’ve had a front row seat to some of the incredible work she’s done from a generosity standpoint. Melissa is a philanthropy professional with a commitment to mission and has over 25 years’ experience in the sector, including fundraising in the arts, healthcare and higher education. Melissa currently serves as the Vice President for Advancement at Susquehanna and just celebrated with her team the historic success of the recently completed $185 million Give Rise campaign. Welcome, Melissa.

Melissa Komora 1:52

Thank you, Jim. It’s wonderful to be here.

Jim Dunlop 1:55

I am really excited to talk to you today. And I think before we jump into a few things, could you just give us a quick little introduction of yourself? Maybe a mini autobiography and let us know who Melissa is?

Melissa Komora 2:09

Sure I’d be happy to. So I am a Midwestern gal. I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. And I was there through college even. I actually was a commuter student. So I went to college and St. Louis, have strong Midwestern roots, all of the—as I like to say—practicality that goes with that as well. A true “Show Me State” girl, right? So great healthy skepticism, whenever we come to ideas, but certainly a strong sense of family and supporting one another. You know, I always say I grew up with sort of two rules, which were, you know, do unto others the golden rule, absolutely. But then don’t spend money you don’t have. So again, it’s, yeah, that whole practicality. But with college, I had an opportunity to do an internship. And that’s where I sort of did what I consider the craziest thing I ever did in my life, because I’m so practical. I just went ‘Sure, I’ll go to New York, and I’ll do an internship’. And so I did that and had a great time, they asked me to come back after graduation. So then moved my whole life out there, and have been along the East Coast now then for the last 30 plus years. So and had that wonderful range of experience from working in the arts with the Glimmerglass opera, and to actually doing some time with a Fortune 500 company and marketing, and then going back into the philanthropy sector and healthcare, and then moving into higher ed. And so I’ve been in the higher ed sector now for 15 years. And it’s just been great. I’ve enjoyed every part of it, I really like the idea of helping others, see how they can help everyone do better in the world, right. So that, to me, is what it’s what it’s all about. As you said in my bio, and I truly believe this, I’m committed to the mission, of whatever that can be, and a greater appreciation for which every part of philanthropy, anybody who wants to be committed to right, so it’s certainly within our sector, we work very hard for the nonprofits that we are working  with for those initiatives, but just have a great appreciation for the whole sector and seeing all the wonderful things that it can do—and that it actually has done over the last several 100 years here in the US. So it’s amazing to see how it is transformed and how it is different now, but at the heart of it, it is still the same thing, which is the heart of it.

Jim Dunlop 4:41

Gotcha. So I know a little bit because I know you I know a little bit about you and I know that if I asked you about your generosity origin story. You know this has been a good part of your professional life has been devoted to this area around generosity and I know that your grandmother is pretty instrumental in that. Could you share a little bit about your grandmother and how it’s impacted you and your work today?

Melissa Komora 5:09

Sure. So my grandmother was, I had a young grandmother, so I was really lucky to have her, I had her till she was 97. So she just passed away about four years ago. And she was a child of the Depression. And so I think just sharing those stories, but hearing about how everyone helped each other out. And in those cases, it wasn’t necessarily money, right, it was just being there for each other for the essentials, shelter, food, those types of things. And so she, and she has a very strong faith, which also has a basis in philanthropy, and giving back and helping others. And then she influenced the part of my life that started me on my love of music, and influenced my career and my degree, and all of the things that came from that. So that’s really at the heart of it. And then I had a secondary influence in my mother, who, as long as I could remember, was always doing service and volunteer work, and was always raising money. So this goes back to the days of when American Cancer Society was having volunteers go out and raise money that was door to door, you were knocking on the door, and you were asking for donations, it was also groups having bake sales, but then also recycling was starting. So recycling centers would actually say, if you want to come stop our recycling center on a Saturday, we will give you whatever the cost of whatever the money is for those scraps that are coming in, and the recycling and that sort of thing. So they were you know, so I remember her dragging me along to plant sales and recycling and, you know, that sort of thing. And, you know, here I am at nine years old, and I’ve got a little notebook and I’m, you know, I’m counting pennies, right, you know, but, but I understood then because then I knew those checks then went to, whether it was the Cancer Society or the local hospital or, you know, others in need, I saw that happen. And so it just became a natural part of my life. And I of course, benefited specifically when I went to college with the scholarships that I was able to receive. I was first generation college. And it was an amazing impact the way it opened the world, for me, was just incredible. My father also was a big music lover, which he got from his mother, my grandmother. And so he also supported arts organizations. So everything from the symphony to the opera, so had great, great exposure to all different kinds of music, as well, but then the philanthropy tie in there. So you know, it’s this this whole weave, that happened, you know, from, from my family’s influence in all the different sectors. And I do think that that helped me understand the mission and each of the sectors as well, because there was always some personal experience associated with each one of those.

Jim Dunlop 8:14

Well, that’s pretty cool. So I know that connected to your grandmother and your family, there’s, there’s something unique that most people don’t know about you, you could you share that.

Melissa Komora 8:24

So it’s my very diverse musical tastes. Okay. So my grandmother was a big music influence. She played the organ very heavily into gospel music, right? That transfers a lot into country music, which my dad was a big fan of, right. So I grew up with that. But again, and my dad being a huge music lover, and a true audiophile, it’s all about all different kinds of sound and music. So he exposed me to opera, and classical music, and of course, rock and roll, everything from Elvis to, you know, that sort of thing. So I think about, I call it the soundtrack of my life is very buried. So I still absolutely love opera and make a point to go see it whenever I possibly can. But at the same time, there’s this whole movement in the 80s and I’m very big mid 80s music—called cal punk. And so cal punk is this wave of music that happened actually on the West Coast, mostly California. Bands like the Blasters, Maria McKee, and Lone Justice.

Jim Dunlop 9:36

And I confess those are bands that I don’t know.

Melissa Komora 9:40

I figured, no, yeah. And again, it’s kind of a niche, but it’s just it’s kind of like the soundtrack of my life and it was perfect because I loved the 80s music and the thing that was happening with new wave and punk and those sorts of things, but then it’s still like had these roots and country music. So when I talk to people about this, or we’re having conversations, and they look at the music back when we all carried CDs now, of course, everything is on our right is on our phone. But when we had CDs, they’d like go through my collection. And they’re like, Okay, Melissa, you have the best of the carpenters, you’ve got Led Zeppelin, and like, last year’s T ball, and you got Carmen, uh, you know, and they’re like, what’s going on with you so. So it’s just, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s a joy. I mean, I’m just so glad that I’ve had that as part of my life, and that I had, like, what I call this varied soundtrack of my life. And it’s so cool. And it also, we talk a lot about when we’re working with, especially in my field, where we’re working with different potential donors, and you know, sort of meeting them where they are and listening about their experiences. So I try to have as much openness and varied experience as I can. So even if I can’t meet them exactly where they are, I can understand right? These varied experiences and how they might, you know, influence how we think about things. So yeah, so we’ve had some common touch points, even on cal punk Believe, word one or two, so, so it’s fun.

Jim Dunlop 11:15

So I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of influence and to tell me what influences people and their generosity, I get a sense, working with clients that I work with, and talking to people in our community that tend to be generous, that there’s a varying amount of, of impulses. And sometimes people are stuck. But tell me, tell me, how people get influenced to be philanthropic. You know, obviously, they have stories like you have your grandparents and so on. But who else is important in that journey for folks?

Melissa Komora 11:51

Sure, I think that’s a really good question. And not everybody has the same experience, right, of having parents that influenced them so that it becomes different situations. So there’s the idea of having—I call them ‘’philanthropic aha moments—right, and so, a lot of times, it’s when something good has been done for them. And they start remembering it. And they, they talk about this whole idea of paying it forward or paying it back. So I think for, and I see this a lot, especially when we’re looking at the higher ed sector is when students start realizing, especially when they become alumni, the impact of scholarship support, and that type of support and what that means and how to move that forward. When you’re looking at health care, obviously, there’s an immediate type of response. And again, it’s situational. If you have a loved one that needs special care, you know, especially as we all go through things within our family, I don’t think that there is a family out there that hasn’t been touched by cancer. And so that was a way for the community to come together. When I worked in health care, we were actually building a cancer center, we were building a palliative care unit, we were building a respite house, if you will, a cancer support house where the support services could be bringing everyone together with that touch point. When you’re looking at arts organizations, it’s making sure we don’t lose those cultural, you know, treasures that we have, whether they are immediately ours or those that are centuries old. How important it is for us to continue to have exposure to those. So, you know, everybody has sort of a different aha moment. And I think it comes at different places in life as well. You see, I think, at least I have seen quite a bit of it happen sort of early in life, or later in life, right? Because there’s that mid level, which I know, you know very well, which is you have a young family and they’re growing up and then they’re going to college, but then, you know, there’s, there’s those touch points come back in again, because it’s like, okay, you know, I’ve made it to this point in my life, and so what do I want to do in the next phase, and how do I want to give back now? So I see all those different kinds of trajectories. You know, we talk a lot in the sector, you know, that occasionally there’ll be what I call the competitive spirit of philanthropy, which is, you know, some folks trying to outdo each other in terms of the size of gifts that they give and, you know, it has social standing and those sorts of things. And that’s, we love to have that that’s absolutely fine. But 95% of the time it is it really does; it’s something that really comes from the heart and there is something that is moved someone to say, yeah, I really it’s time for me to give back, or I really want to do this, Aha, I get it.


Jim Dunlop 15:04

So you’ve had a front row seat, and I’m sure you have some good, do you have a good aha moment of somebody you were working with in one of your organizations, where, you know, they were able to finally connect those pieces and do something meaningful from their perspective that they had been maybe searching or struggling to figure out?

Melissa Komora 15:23

Sure so I’m gonna give you two short stories, because they’re sort of a little bit different perspectives and situations. So one was a donor who was looking to make a major gift, but just wasn’t really sure, right. And so it was, it started out as a conversation because of the size of the gift with financial advisors and insurance agents and legal team. And so there were all these scenarios going back and forth. And it was very formal, and she was actually getting really upset about it, because it included agreements that were very, very horrible. And she had said, she said, you know, but no, you know, me, right? I don’t need to sign this. Why is this so formal? Why are you demanding this and this and this? And so I said, Okay, let’s put a pause on this. I said, and let’s just stop a little bit. I said, the heart is really there. The intention is here. Let’s get back to that. So I said, ‘why don’t I come and visit you?’ So we sat at her kitchen table, right? And we just started having a conversation. And we went back to what is it that you really want to do? What do you want to give? What is your dream? What is your vision? What do you see? And so we came when we solidified that, then I said, I will then work with, you know, everyone else to basically say, this is the end we have to come to where we have to adjust everything else that it’s some of it was on our end too as an institution, right processes, documents, just as well as it was for the, you know, insurance and financial advisors that we have to make adjustments, what can we all live with, so that at the end, the heart and the intent of this gift is still at the forefront? It doesn’t become about all of this process. So I think, again, a really good lesson in don’t lose sight of the heart of, of what’s happening. And, and it was an aha moment, probably for the donor as well, because she thought she wanted all the formality of it, but not so much, but also an aha moment for those of us that work in the sector, that we have to be really, really careful about letting that process and the paperwork get in the way. Yeah. And then the other small one is actually with my husband. So as you know, he’s actually professional actor. Yep. And he has actually played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol a couple of times. Now, he did not grow up in a philanthropic household, you know, he’s learned by being with me, but did not, you know, never on the same wavelength as I am in terms of philanthropy and giving back. And so and you would think even having played Scrooge, he would have had a philanthropic aha moment.

Jim Dunlop 18:25

If anyone ever had an aha moment.

Melissa Komora 18:28

Just in the role, right, still hadn’t happened. But there was a situation actually where he was in New York City. And he was auditioning, it was during the winter, it was cold, it was horrible. And there was someone asking for money, a homeless person asking for money. And he came back, and he told me, he gave that person money. And he said, he had an aha moment. Because it was right in front of him that I have so much more than this person, I don’t have to do this. And I need to help. I need to give back, I need to give them a chance, whatever, you know, whatever it is. So that was, again, just another way of you know, how it hits people at different times in different ways, especially if it’s not something that’s part of a culture that they grow up in. And so and he’s, and you know, he’s gone beyond that, now that he is, you know, committed. And it’s not just about the random gifts here or there, but really understands what I do, and how we can get back into things that are important to give back to going forward and again, having those conversations with him and where is he at? His charitable intentions are not necessarily same as mine. So we’ve had to kind of find some common ground in some cases to say, okay, we both want these things. What how are we going to make are we gonna make that work?

Jim Dunlop 19:55

Yeah, and I think that’s probably very common for a lot husbands and wives or spouses where they have some areas of great love and overlap, but then probably things that they’re very interested in that are quite diverse from one another, based on their own experiences. So do you, you know, are there are there any people who have, besides, you know, your grandmother and your parents, anybody else that’s had some influence on you or created, you know, really showed you some of some of that really selfless generosity in your life? And, you know, how, what does that look like?

Melissa Komora 20:35

Wow, it’s, I think, I am going to, I can think of specific donors, right, that have done that for me, certainly. I am amazed to why and I, those that really do give generously. And I mean, very generous gifts, right? In the million-dollar range, right? And don’t necessarily think twice about it. Right? I mean, they are thinking about it right. Because they’ve planned for this right. But in terms of from their heart, they’re basically saying, first and foremost, I want to do this, and then they’re going to their financial planner, or you were me, and they’re basically saying help me get there. So I, I am constantly amazed by that. Right. And it’s, you know, it just, it boggles the mind. I mean, not ‘it boggles the mind’, it moves the heart, right? I mean, again, if, if there’s any reason why I do what I do, and again, I’m fortunate, because I get to see the direct impact of having those conversations, and I have been so fortunate to have had those conversations throughout my whole career. Right. So it’s not just something that happened recently, it’s not just something that occasionally happens. It’s, it’s a regular occurrence. And so I, you know, and in many cases, these stories are about in especially, because I’ve spent the last 15 years in higher ed, it is about the opportunities that college has provided them, right. And where they’ve, where they’ve started their background, their parents background, right, whether their parents were of the Depression generation, or, you know, even further back, and how they, they just moved forward to a to a spot that their parents never thought, you know, that a family member would get there. It just, each of their stories has a similar tract, but it’s so unique. And, again, that that influences me, I guess, to keep doing what I’m doing. Even against, you know, it can be tough because of an economy issue. It can be tough to do our jobs. It’s also tough sometimes, because we do have some mercenary fundraisers, in our midst, unfortunately. And so they give us a bit of a bad rap. And so we have to kind of push back against that, but worth it worth it all.

Jim Dunlop 23:32

Yeah, so not to put you on the spot too much. Have you ever worked with somebody that’s stumbled across a problem and said, I see this problem and I want to fix it, but I don’t have any idea how to do it. Can you give us an example of even a very simple thing that, you know, we’re able to get them from, hey, this is a problem. And here’s a solution to that problem.

Melissa Komora 23:53

Right, right. Um, yes, I think basically, uh, you, you know, we talk about a strategy that we have in our philanthropic sector called a blended gift, right. So I would say sometimes that biggest problem is I want to make a large gift, or I really want to have an impact here. But I have retirement to think about, and I have grandkids to think about, and I have these other things to think about. And so you know, and how do I do this? And I know, I can’t take the money with me, but I want to make sure that they’re taken care of right? That it’s really, really important. So it’s like how, you know, how do I do this? Right. So I think it’s having that conversation about staying again, going back to that story I shared earlier about the donor like what’s your intent? What do you want to do? What is your dream starting from there and then working backward to strategies? And certainly the very first and easiest strategy, as you know, is to talk about estate planning, right? Basic will basic beneficiary designations, right and those are simplest, easiest things to do. And I think that also brings up a point to is reassuring that the solution doesn’t have to be complicated. I think sometimes when we hear about and again, I will be forever grateful to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for the giving pledge and that initiative, but at the same time, I think then that also sets the standard, everybody thinks, Well, this sounds gonna be really complicated. And you have to have a lot of money to do all of this. Yeah. So I think, again, from the heart, we don’t have to make this complicated. Here are some easy solutions, here’s where we can start. But let’s also talk to your, you know, financial adviser, because there may be some other things that you don’t even know about, again, not so difficult to do just, you know, just changing a way of looking at something, just changing the way of planning something, and that that could change at each stage. So that’s what I’ve experienced as being a way to, to get that problem solving going forward. And, and having an easy solution.

Jim Dunlop 26:05

Yeah, I mean, it’s sometimes as easy as saying, hey, let’s just put Susquehanna University is 20% a beneficiary of your IRA, you know, anybody else is going to pay taxes on it inherited, so why not do something like that? So I think, I like that idea. It’s sometimes a really impactful thing can be a very simple thing, like a beneficiary designation, on an investment, or a retirement account that says, hey, whatever’s left when I’m done, you know, you can have part of it. So you touched on the name of our show, which is, you can’t take it with you. And, and I came up with that, because it’s something I tell our clients a lot when we’re doing financial planning and say, you know, look, while you’re here, we want to make sure you have enough you’re comfortable, you can do all the things that that are important to you and your family, and take care of the people you want to but at the end of the day, you can’t take it with you. And so let’s have that conversation, what it means. And so I think if it were me, if there’s lots of advice I’d like to give the world and put on billboards, and for me, it would be you can’t take it with you, which is kind of the impetus for this show. Now, if I were giving Melissa Komora a broad stage, and I rented a billboard in a very visible place, and you can put anything on that that you wanted to what would be your message or advice in that situation?

Melissa Komora 27:27

And I think it’s very simple. Just give back.

Jim Dunlop 27:31

Just give back. Very good. Well, Melissa, I thank you for sharing some time with us and sharing some of the some of your journey, as well as some ideas that hopefully will inspire folks here. Really appreciate you taking the time for us today. I know that if people want to reach out to Melissa they can find her at Susquehanna University at www.susqu.edu. And we really appreciate your time today, and we look forward to talking to you again.

Melissa Komora 28:04

Thank you. It’s been a great afternoon. Thanks so much.

Outro 28:09

Thanks for joining us to hear stories of generosity that remind us that you can’t take it with you. Visit our site at canttakeitwithyou.com for more details on today’s episode, and to subscribe to future shows.

Disclosure 28:28

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