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Healing Through Giving: Ralph Serpe on the Power of Thoughtful Philanthropy

In this episode of the You Can’t Take it With You podcast, Ralph Serpe, President and CEO of the Adams County Community Foundation, joins Jim Dunlop to explore the multifaceted impact of thoughtful giving. They discuss stories of turning personal loss into community gain, the transformative power of family legacies in philanthropy, and innovative approaches to maximizing the impact of charitable efforts. 

The podcast comes out weekly, so make sure you go on over to https://canttakeitwithyou.com/ or your favorite podcast platform to listen!

Ralph Serpe is the President and CEO of the Adams County Community Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting charitable giving and building a permanent endowment for the Adams County community. A seasoned philanthropic advisor, Ralph has a rich history in the sector, having led development efforts at Community Foundations in Baltimore, Princeton, and Silicon Valley. He is recognized for his contributions to the National Standards Board for Community Foundations and his active participation on various municipal boards and commissions. In 2022, Ralph played a pivotal role in a legislative initiative to eliminate scholarship displacement at public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania. His work in 2014 with the Maryland Community Foundation Association led to the passage of Endow Maryland, a tax credit program for Community Foundation donors.

In this episode Jim and Ralph discuss:

  • Ralph’s background and how he got started with philanthropy
  • What is scholarship displacement?
  • Ralph’s generosity origin story and how he gets his family involved
  • How philanthropy can help a family heal and connect through shared values
  • The importance of giving back and pleasing others

Episode Summary:

How can thoughtful giving not only heal personal traumas but also create enduring community legacies? Can the act of giving truly transform both the giver and the recipient in profound ways?

According to Ralph Serpe, a leader in community-focused philanthropy, the answer is a resounding yes. The key lies in transforming personal experiences into impactful philanthropic initiatives. He emphasizes the role of generosity in healing and shaping community development, underscoring that philanthropy is not just about monetary contributions but about the thoughtful connection of one’s values and experiences to the needs of others. This approach turns personal healing into a catalyst for broader community enrichment, creating legacies that resonate far beyond individual acts of giving.

In this episode of You Can’t Take it With You, Ralph Serpe, President and CEO of the Adams County Community Foundation, joins Jim Dunlop to explore the multifaceted impact of thoughtful giving. They discuss stories of turning personal loss into community gain, the transformative power of family legacies in philanthropy, and innovative approaches to maximizing the impact of charitable efforts.

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, a wealth advisor and host of the 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 on generosity to not only inspire our listeners, but to give us practical ideas on ways we can give. Today’s guest is Ralph Serpe. Before I get to Ralph, though, 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. Now, if you live in my community, and you’ve had to think about people who get the idea of generosity, chances are you would come up with Ralph Serpe. Ralph is a philanthropic advisor and current president of the Adams County Community Foundation. Previously, Ralph led the development efforts at Community Foundations of Baltimore, Princeton, and Silicon Valley. He serves on the National Standards Board for Community Foundations and on several municipal boards and commissions. In 2022. He led the successful legislative effort among college scholarship providers to eliminate scholarship displacement at public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania. In 2014, Ralph worked with the Maryland Community Foundation Association, to pass endow Maryland, an unrestricted endowment tax credit for Community Foundation donors, Ralph, welcome to the You Can’t Take it With You show.

Ralph Serpe 2:07

Thank you, Jim. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jim Dunlop 2:09

Could you give us a quick two-to-three-minute auto biography on us so our listeners get to know you a little bit?

Ralph Serpe 2:18

Two to three minutes. Sure. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. My background, I studied economics as an undergraduate and graduate student, and actually started as a music major. So my background was in music. And then I thought, I better do something practical. And my experience was in economics and banking. And eventually, I landed at Community Foundation’s Silicon Valley in the late 90s and early 2000s When Silicon Valley was minting millionaires, but Silicon Valley is a community where much is expected when you generate wealth. And that expectation is about giving back to the community. And it was the first community I was ever a part of where generosity was a shared community value. And there are a number of communities across our great country that have embraced community philanthropy and generosity like that. Silicon Valley was actually one of them. And then, for the past 23 years, I’ve worked at community foundations across the country and worked with families who feel that generosity is important. And then it’s a shared family value. And, part of my work is helping them give shape to their family philanthropy and generosity. And along the way, my own family has participated in similar exercises we give together, we’ve made commitments to our community together. And that has both been a challenge and a blessing.

Jim Dunlop 4:10

So when you’re not working in philanthropy in the generosity space, what do you do for fun, you’re out?

Ralph Serpe 4:20

Oh, yeah, for fun. So music has always been with me. So I’m a tuba player, baritone horn player. And also for about 28 years I’ve served on the board of I want to call it a cultural arts organization out of Boston. And every time I try to leave the board, I come back for another year, and I help raise money for indoor color guard marching band, drum corps, anything music related. So I’m a horn player and a music person.

Jim Dunlop 4:55

Very good. Well, that’s fun, though. I do want this to be a podcast about generosity and ideas around generosity. But as I read your bio, I want to just ask a question. And maybe this ties back to generosity I suspect it does. But tell me a little bit about this idea of scholarship displacement. I think that’s a terminology that probably not a lot of people are familiar with. And you let some successful efforts to eliminate it. Tell me a little bit about what that was and the problem that you were solving for?

Ralph Serpe 5:25

Sure. So scholarships are very popular philanthropic interests with many people. And so scholarship displacement happens when a student receives a financial aid package from their college or university. So they’ll say, Jim, welcome to State University, we know it’s going to cost about $30,000 a year to attend. And we’re going to give you a $10,000 financial aid package from the school a year for the next four years. And Jim says, Great, now all I have to do is find another $20,000 A year to apply for and receive private scholarships from your community foundation from business groups from rotary from a local school, and let’s say that you received $5,000 in private scholarships. What happens when those scholarships go to your school, your school says, Jim, thank you very much for the $5,000 in private scholarships, we are now going to reduce your financial aid package from 10,000 to 5000. So essentially displacing your financial aid package, you and your family are still on the hook for that $20,000. But the school has just saved itself $5,000 and scholarship dollars. Last year or two years ago, Pennsylvania joined four other states in making that type of scholarship displacement, illegal and the reason why the Community Foundation here in Adams County focused on scholarship displacement, that when we look back in 2017, when we look back on the scholarships that we offered on behalf of our donors, about 80% of them were displaced. 80% Paying oil, and donors are interested in standing shoulder to shoulder with colleges and universities, if they wish, they could just get money to the college they’re interested in in supporting students and their families. And, and that’s when our work started in finding a legislative solution to this scholarship displacement. So now in Pennsylvania, and Washington State and New Jersey and Maryland and California, when you bring a private scholarship to a state school, those that those dollars are stacked on top of financial aid that you’re receiving it really it’s a donor and client issue, they want to make sure that their charitable dollars are effective.

Jim Dunlop 8:07

Yeah, you’re almost saying like if 80% of your clients provided scholarships, and that generosity essentially lost out because you know, that they weren’t providing any additional incentive to the students. They wanted to help. They were simply at the institution. They’re old. And so well, thank you for sharing that. That’s pretty cool work that you’ve been able to do and what a great What a great story for your donors and probably inspires them hopefully to be thinking more along the lines of doing scholarships. What is just out of curiosity, what does it take to get a scholarship fund started at the Adams County Community Foundation if you wanted to help a student in college?

Ralph Serpe 8:53

Yeah. So we don’t know what it takes to get a scholarship fund started, we don’t start with fund types. We really want to think about what people want to accomplish with their philanthropy. And sometimes scholarships are the way to go and sometimes, when you start talking about what’s important. People will think about, Do I want to support one student for one year? Or do I want to have an impact with many students over time and I’ll give you an example of this. And I’ll start with the first one. The first time I had this conversation, a gentleman lost his dad and wanted to honor his father who invented the spring-loaded Jacuzzi cover for the hot tub. That was the family business and What they wanted to do was to create a scholarship to send the best swimmers in their communities to the best swimming colleges in the country. So, you know, they want to pluck the best two swimmers out of the county and send them to Stanford, Georgia, South Florida. And, while we were having this conversation, I realized that swimming programs in that community were going away very quickly, with the cost of swimming instruction and insurance and the facilities that if it continued, there wouldn’t be any great swimmers in that community to be awarded a scholarship. So I asked if there was a way that we could invest and introduce the joy of swimming to every kid in this community. So by the time they were high school seniors, instead of two great swimmers, we had 40. And instead of those two great swimmers, trying to get themselves in those great swimming programs, those great swimming programs were circling our community, finding a whole host of great swimmers. And for the same amount of money, you can introduce the joy of swimming through local wise high school programs or any number of programs. And, and, and introduce that to younger students. And you can apply that same process to agriculture, music, academics, it doesn’t matter what it is, but generous people can invest in their local communities or any community doesn’t have to be the community the limit, and find a way to introduce young people to the same, the same things that provided a joyful life for them.

Jim Dunlop 12:00

Neat. So one of the things.

Ralph Serpe 12:04

And yes, we and yes, people can still do a traditional scholarship where they’re providing dollars to students who have graduated from high school and going on. But there’s so much more to the scholarship world than just a one-time scholarship to a high school senior going off to school, so much more.

Jim Dunlop 12:23

What I really like, I really like that story, in part because it’s really they say, you know, I’m very passionate about people becoming teachers. So I want to establish scholarships for kids to go to college and become teachers. However, I like your process and style of Saul deeper than what you’re really trying to get to. And if it’s that we have good teachers in the communities, just great scholarships isn’t the only way to get good teachers. There’s lots of other neat things you can do to support existing teachers or whatever, in that example. So I really liked that. So Ralph, as you are giving your autobiography a little bit, I’ve heard you talk a little bit about getting your own family involved and doing some stuff. So tell me a little bit about your own personal generosity and what’s your generosity origin story? How did you end up here? And how did you get your family to come along with you?

Ralph Serpe 13:17

You know, philanthropy, as we know it in this country, is uniquely American. It’s written into our tax code. Also a learned behavior. So I appreciate the question about an origin story because I don’t know if folks are born philanthropic or generous, but they certainly pick up what’s happening around them. My family was generous to their church and generous to their neighbors. In service, not necessarily money. I owe the ladder that my parents, my parents, neighbors purchased, my parents moved into a housing development in 1959 Maybe there were 35 houses, and everybody squeezed every nickel they could to buy those homes and so they were all from the big city. They moved out to the suburbs. And finally they realized, oh, we need a ladder to climb up on the roof every once in a while. So they bought a community ladder and it was stored in my parent’s garage. And growing up. I would walk that ladder to people’s homes for painting projects and projects and gutter projects and Christmas lights. And my dad and I would walk that ladder around the neighborhood and did so for 25 years. And when that ladder needed to be replaced, my father replaced it. And he replaced it twice. And it struck me and he never told anyone, if the ladder would suddenly become new, and people never questioned why the paint splatters from five years ago, my dad was also a member of the Lions Club, and flipped a lot of pancakes and was very interested in programs that helped struggling families feed their children. And that was very important to him, because I knew it was a struggle that he had at times with his large family. My mother taught little children how to swim at the local why, and she did it as a volunteer. She was also an open ocean lifeguard and went out. And, the two of them had a sense of responsibility and caring that went beyond their own families. And for that, that part stuck with me. But I think, and I think that’s where my generosity gene comes from. And I also married into a family where generosity is part of the fabric of who they are. And a number of years ago, at Christmas time, on Christmas Eve, there was one gift left under the tree, and it was an envelope. And my mother-in-law read a letter to her family that said how proud she was of how her children were benefiting the community and society, how they came to live in their community. They had moved from one part of Pennsylvania to another, they didn’t know anyone, and they were connected to their church and to the school. And the school in particular became really important in terms of raising their children. And she was really happy with how her and her husband were very happy and how their children turned out. So happy, in fact, that they decided to leave their entire estate to the Spring Grove area. Education Foundation. Oh, wow. So other families, particularly those new to the community would have an opportunity their children would have an opportunity to participate in after-school programs. And you could hear a pin drop as she was reading that letter. And it wasn’t silence based on Oh, no, our inheritance just went away. Right? It was the sound of an extended family. understanding. Understanding that decision and grateful, really grateful that their parents had made that decision. They are a family. And I appreciate this. That talked about money, and the relationship of money to each other and to the family. Before someone’s funeral, like I often say, if the first time your kids are talking about money is at your funeral, I think you waited too long. Yeah, and, and they are a family that talks about family generosity. And that had an impact on me. And when my father passed away a couple of years ago, my siblings and my mother responded to my father’s death by creating a charitable fund that will support all those things that my dad lived for, not what he died from, but what those lived for. And it’s a conversation we have often. And as it turned out just this week, the Family Fund is making a grant to a local service organization for their food pantry. I guess food was very important to my father.

Jim Dunlop 19:34

Yeah, it’s, you know, it’s funny, Ralph, I’ve known you for a couple of years and we have a couple of parallels. One is I’ve always been really involved in Ruth harvest initiative here at Gettysburg, which is for the last 10 years, feeding hungry school kids in our community. And then your mom is talking about swimming. My kids are big swimmers, and it’s become very important to our Family. We spent way too much time at the YWCA. And our skin is dry from the insoles like chlorine all the time. But it’s, you know, it’s funny that we have those things in common. And I can’t imagine how pleased Your dad must be looking down on Dad and what you’ve been able to do.

Ralph Serpe 20:23

Yeah, I think what makes it meaningful for us, we’re not, we don’t spend any time bemoaning the disease that took him. We spent time talking about the things that he absolutely loved. And so we started that process as a family around the Thanksgiving table. His children are now strewn across the country. So we make a point that we get together, and we’re talking about all those things. And that, to me, is what I’ve learned from the families that we work with at the Community Foundation all the time that they’re looking to, they’re looking to heal through philanthropy. So philanthropy I think, is very healing in that way. And, we use it to tell stories and to surprise groups and organizations with a gift and my father’s name. And those gifts because his children have done better economically than I think he did. Looking at those. I think those gifts are larger than my father would have ever imagined. It could have been a maid and his name. And I don’t know if the gift size is important. But the fact that we get together and have these conversations. And we’ve gone through the process of making gifts to the church where my parents were married. The animal shelter where we adopted every dog we’ve ever, ever had growing up. Yeah. The service organizations and the organizations, my parents were connected to the marching band that would practice two blocks over from their house. You know, for 20 years, my mother said that every time the marching band would stop practicing, she would hear them. She said 15 minutes later, one of her kids would walk in the door because she had four kids that were part of that marching band over 20 years.

Jim Dunlop 22:32

Yeah, right.

Ralph Serpe 22:35

And so part of the conversation and part of the fun of incorporating generosity into a family dynamic is that we have more things to talk about, then, than work and people’s medical ailments. We’re talking about how we incorporate our family values into collective giving. And that’s really difficult when you have an extended family that have very different personalities and very different interests.

Jim Dunlop 23:12

Well, and what a great way. What a great legacy for your dad, is that not only are these things being done in his name, but that his family is coming together every year and teaching that spirit of his generosity. And you don’t carry the stories of carrying a ladder around what will remain and the impact that that had. And what a great, what a great legacy for Kent, and probably not one he would have ever imagined. But that helped his family continue to hold his family together and keep his spirit of generosity a lot.

Ralph Serpe 23:55

I think that’s right. And I think he was from a generation where you didn’t talk about what you did for other people. It was done very, it was done quietly, but it was done consistently. And that’s the piece that I really like about having a family charitable fund that not only is now advised by his children, but also incorporates his grandchildren and now his great grandchildren. Oh wow. So it’s a process where when we think about doing a nomination, people nominate the organizations that they want to receive a grant but in a particular year and now his grandchildren and his great grandchildren are involved in that process. Wow. And that’s the piece and because we were those children and grandchildren, those grandchildren and great grandchildren. Some of them didn’t grow up around him and had very limited experiences with him. But they carry his name. And now they’re carrying his generous spirit. And for that, I’m thankful.

Jim Dunlop 25:10

Well, that’s a wonderful legacy at a rough time. I’m wondering too, besides your own family, if you’d be willing to share from your work over the years, a story that maybe exemplifies, and you had given me this concept. You’re giving me this concept of rethinking and redirecting people’s philanthropy that the people are already generous, but maybe aren’t sure what to do with that impulse and do nothing. What’s a story where you got to have a front row seat to maybe where somebody had some sort of generous impulse, but wasn’t really sure how to express it, and getting them to redirect and rethink in ways that led to some really neat outcomes?

Ralph Serpe 26:04

Yeah, there’s so you know, there’s so many of them. As I said, philanthropy can be healing, I’ll share one story about a woman I met with, who received the family home in a divorce. And she immediately gave that house to a charitable fund. And she wanted the proceeds from the annual grants from that fund to support domestic violence shelters, in the communities where her husband had lived and would live in the future. If, and we didn’t, we didn’t talk about the rationale behind that. But you could tell that that charitable fund was a response to and healing. for that. What sounded like a difficult family situation. Yeah, I worked with a family who lost their son in the 911 terrorist attacks in New York City. And they were receiving insurance money from that attack, and they didn’t want it. And they didn’t know what to do with it. And they initially thought, Well, shouldn’t there be a scholarship in their son’s name at the local high school? And the more we had this conversation about what they wanted to accomplish, what they eventually decided on was to put their son’s name on capital projects in the communities that he loved as a young person, not necessarily their local community. And they thought, What would Thomas have? What would he have supported over his lifetime? And so they, instead of working with a long history of someone, and realizing what they lived for, their philanthropy and funds in Thomas’s name is about what he would have been about. It’s such a great turnaround from a very painful event to something really positive. And sometimes I’m back on the scholarship piece where, you know, we have a, we have a wonderful donor here in Adams County, that they wanted to do the math when it came to scholarships. So if, if, if a full year tuition is $30,000, and they were providing a $2,000 scholarship, and you get 30 credit hours for $30,000 at a school. So $2,000 would equate to credit hours and, and they were open to listening about the options for that $2,000 a year. And the option they settled on was providing $100 to students at a local high school that are taking AP exams. So for Advanced Placement exams, students can get anywhere from one to three credit hours. And if they meet a certain grade, so $2,000 would pay for 20 students to take an AP exam. And those 20 students could generate anywhere from 20 to 60 credit hours, right All right. So they thought, Oh, for $2,000, I could either do two credit hours, or I could do up to 60 credit hours, which is like two years of college spread out over these 20 students. Right. And they love that idea. Because the high school that they’re supporting their students may not be able to ask their parents for $100- 200 $300. And so people are really open to not only how can I make a difference in a young person’s life, but how can I, and do that the most cost effective and cost-effective matter. And those stories are numerous. In our community, we have donors who provide money for the Adams County Technical Institute, our local technical high school programs. So students can get uniforms, diesel, diesel tools, and the equipment they need to participate in that program. So that barrier is gone. So students going into that tech program don’t have to lay out any additional cash to do so. And so I have, I’ve found that people are open to the options. And they’re also open to supporting local education, especially zero to five, to get kids ready for school. So they’re all at the same starting line, and helping kids over the course of their early and, and elementary education. So by the time they’re middle school and high school students, they’re on par with other students.

Jim Dunlop 31:54

So, Ralph, I really appreciate you taking the time today to share this stuff with us, very inspiring both your own family stories, as well as some of the folks you’ve had the privilege of working with. Before we get to my final question, if our listeners want to interact with you, or reach out to you, I know they can connect you to the foundation. What’s a good way to find you is through the website at the foundation?

Ralph Serpe 32:20

Sure people can learn about the Adams County Community Foundation, by visiting adamscountycf.org They can give us a call at 717-337-0060. Or I guess they can contact you and you can refer us over but we’re really happy to talk with not only individuals and families, but business groups and groups of friends. You know, we have a number of funds that were created by groups of friends who met around a particular issue or activity. And, they and we work with them to create something that’s meaningful to them, but they can contact me through the Adams County Community Foundation and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Jim Dunlop 33:08

Very good. And I know you’re on LinkedIn as well. So if somebody was willing to pay for a billboard for you, Ralph said, It’s my last question. You can put anything on this billboard you want? What would you put on that billboard? Then?

Ralph Serpe 33:35

I think either give generously, but really always be mindful of the thoughts of others. Always be mindful of others. And that fits what we do every day, we have a saying at work every morning here at the Community Foundation, we always say to each other instead of “good morning.” And “hello”. We say “who are we going to make happy today?” And it’s great. It’s really that great feeling. So I’ll edit that out and say, If I had a billboard, I would say who will you make happy today? Will you marry Cathy today? Well, very good. That means you’re always thinking of others. And if you’re thinking of others, you’re in that you’re in the right space. You can’t go wrong.

Jim Dunlop 34:29

Well, thank you, Ralph. We’ve been talking with Ralph Serpe, truly a thought leader on philanthropy and you can find him at adamscountycf.org. Thanks for joining us.

Ralph Serpe 34:43

Thank you for having me.

Outro 34:46

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 35:04

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