Don’t think about volunteering for charity, do it

Terrell Gates, winner of the 2016 Big Giver Award, explains his approach to nonprofits.


Terrell Gates: “I have to admit selfishly that I never feel better than when I’ve given my time to others.”

Terrell Gates: “I had two great role models for giving: my mom and my dad.”

Last fall, during the Big Give ceremony at the Sunset Room on East Third Street, Terrell Gates rose to accept the Patsy Woods Martin Big Giver Award from I Live Here I Give Here, an advocacy group for nonprofits.

Impressed with his 300 hours of recent volunteer service with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area and the number of his vocal supporters in the room, this reporter determined to gain some insight.

“He drives our board to move the needle on child poverty every day,” said Misti Potter, vice president of the Boys and Girls Clubs, about Gates’ work. “He has an unwavering work ethic and personal moral compass.”

It took us a while, however, to nail down Gates, busy founder and CEO of Virtus Real Estate Capital, but his considered thoughts on giving were well worth the wait.

American-Statesman: Please share an anecdote or two about giving and receiving during your childhood.

Terrell Gates: I had two great role models for giving: my mom and my dad. My dad was a tough guy and shrewd businessman who took our family on a financial roller coaster through the years, but regardless of how much or little he had, he was always quite generous.

I remember one time in particular when I was a young kid: We were coming out of somewhere to get into our car, and there was a lady, seemingly homeless, with two small children. My dad went over and spoke with her to see what the story was. He gave her a crisp $100 bill … to help her get back on her feet.

My mom, on the other hand, made giving a central part of her life. She was always helping at the church, numerous community organizations and political organizations working for social change. The polar opposite of my father, she was a liberal and a very involved civil rights activist looking for social change, especially for the Hispanic community.

She was a great example of someone willing to sacrifice for others in everything she did. We called her “Joan of Arc.” From early on, she had me involved in the church and with volunteer opportunities, such as working in the soup kitchen, helping at the church and going on numerous mission trips with youth groups and the like to provide help in impoverished areas.

When did you start helping out at Boys and Girls Clubs? Why?

I joined the board 10 years ago. Pat Flynn of Flynn Construction, along with a couple other board members at the time, had been after me to join. I politely declined, because I already sat on the board of several businesses and other nonprofit groups. He convinced me to come visit a club. I went to the Lanier High School-based club and saw a lot of at-risk kids who after school gets out each day would normally be in unsafe or unhealthy environments doing unproductive things.

Instead, these kids were in a safe and nurturing environment doing very productive things and “having fun with a purpose” as we call it at the club. The programming is built around a three-legged stool of academic enrichment, character and leadership development and healthy lifestyles. This struck me, especially because my wife had been a special education teacher at Burnet Middle School, and I knew secondhand through her the amazing challenges these kids had.

Once I saw what they were doing with and for these kids, I did my due diligence on the group, their financial model and their impact. I’m a real estate fund manager, and I take a similar disciplined approach to my philanthropic investing as I do to my professional investing. The club far exceeded my expectations. I have yet to find another nonprofit in the U.S. that has as great of an impact as the Boys and Girls Club. After my experience at the Lanier Club and seeing the numbers, I couldn’t not get involved.

How do you help them?

I always think of it simply as time, talents and treasure.

Time is obvious and usually means donating your time to a group in terms of on-the-ground volunteering, such as serving the youth in a club or mentoring them. Or it means providing help at the board level, where we’re responsible for corporate governance, strategic planning and fundraising. Although I still participate in on-the-ground volunteer opportunities at the club and with other organizations, such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes and the First United Methodist Church Homeless Breakfast, my talents allow me to be more impactful in board or other leadership roles.

The easiest way to describe what we do on the board of a nonprofit, and especially the club board, is we try to bring best practices we’ve learned from our for-profit enterprises to its leadership, (which) doesn’t often have the context or experience from competitive for-profit businesses. Even if they do have the know-how, they rarely have the bandwidth to develop and execute strategy that helps evolve the organization to another level, because they’re always so focused on the here and now.

As far as treasure, my family gives to a number of philanthropic organizations around the globe, but we have chosen to invest a greater percentage in the club, because we have yet to find another group that impacts more people in a more profound way than the Boys and Girls Club.

What would you say to folks considering giving of their time to local charities?

Don’t think about it, do it.

I know so many people “in the weeds” of child rearing, building a career or whatever other distraction the world throws at us or we make for ourselves that they basically cop out and tell themselves, “I’ll help others when I have more time, money or whatever.”

Hogwash. The busiest people I know are the ones doing the most for the organizations in which I’m involved. It’s not just the retired folks or the wealthy entrepreneur who sold her business for a gazillion dollars. It’s everyday people with their own problems and with very busy lives, personal and professional, who are doing a tremendous amount for their communities.

I have to admit selfishly that I never feel better than when I’ve given my time to others. I believe it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian and writer who fought against the Nazi regime during World War II, who said — and I’m paraphrasing — the benefactor is not the one receiving the aid, but the one giving it.

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