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A Lesson in Love from Gene Gardner

By Opportunity International

Gene Gardner and his wife Mary Kay, have long been philanthropists. Even as newlyweds, they put their passion for helping others into action by starting to budget for charitable gifts.

Over the years, they tried to give as much as possible to as many charities as they could. But soon, the pile of requests grew too steep to fund everything, so they shifted their approach to giving large gifts to a few select charities. In order to ensure their gifts made the most impact, Gene researches the credibility and looks for measurable outcomes of the charities they plan to support. 

It was this diligence that led Gene to Opportunity International. Opportunity’s profile on Charity Navigator showed that 92 cents of every dollar raised goes to our programs, far exceeding the 65-cent standard established by the Better Business Bureau. He was also drawn to Opportunity’s concept of empowering people to help themselves and the incredibly high success rate of microlending projects and loan payback.

“Along the way, I’ve discovered that a lot of folks seem to focus on local charities; a very small percentage of American donations go to much more severe needs of those who happen to live further away,” shares Gene. “So my wife and I committed to making our international gifts a much bigger portion of our overall giving. And after we saw how effectively Opportunity International works and how far the dollars go, we became significant donors pretty much right away.”

As time went on, they learned about the importance of Agriculture Finance and the long-range benefit from Education Finance loans. These motivated the Gardners to give more.

Gene also developed a wonderful relationship with his local Opportunity representative, Lillian Covington. “When you really like the way a charity operates, you think about them and want to be helpful,” explains Gene. “Sometimes you see how something could be improved, or you want to share a great idea. Mine were listened to—and when something resulted in change—it made me feel great.”

Gene supports charitable causes in three ways. “One way is through financial support, another is by volunteering and using your talents to help an organization develop, and the third is by helping get others involved,” he says.

Last year in his retirement community, he invited his fellow residents to share concerns about local, national, and global issues they felt were important. This sparked a series of meetings where they invited organizations to educate them on an issue and what was being done to solve it and, most importantly, determine how they could help. This is how their Love Your Neighbor initiative was born.

“It stems from my spiritual outlook—I believe that the good Lord loves us, and anybody that loves you wants you to be happy. The way to be happy is not tied to laughing or and how much you can accumulate, but rather the good that fills your heart from a sense of loving and caring for others."

When the topic of global poverty came up, the residents were astounded to learn that Opportunity is making such tremendous progress on this issue as we work to equip those in remote areas break the cycle of poverty once and for all. 

Source: Our World in Data
Source: Our World in Data

One piece of data that moved them can be seen on this chart, pictured above, showing the world population living in extreme poverty rapidly decreasing. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an upset in this progress, making it an ideal time for more people to help those efforts get back on track.

They also found that the Love Your Neighbor program benefited more than just the people impacted by these issues. The residents became more engaged and active in these charitable missions, the charities that the group partnered with were not only able to reach potential new supporters, but they are planning to invite their current supporters in the area to join the meetings to hear updates from the organization. And the retirement community was happy to provide the space and meals for these meetings because it opened the door for them to reach prospective residents.

“I would love to see a program like this replicated in other communities, and I am more than happy to share the tools and strategies we’ve developed to help with that,” offers Gene. 

Gene is living proof that you truly can “be the change you wish to see in the world.” In addition to their financial support, Gene also donates his time and talent to other important causes. He served as a volunteer leader for another humanitarian non-profit and even launched a non-profit to help people develop good parenting skills. He currently provides financial services pro-bono for low-income seniors and volunteers with hospice care.

Gene has been an incredible advocate for Opportunity and those we serve. You can hear his speech (19:20) from our last National Board of Governors Meeting in June 2021, where he talked more about his remarkable initiative. Opportunity is grateful to have Gene as part of our Governor community, sharing his immeasurable contributions to help eradicate poverty. He is a wonderful example of how each Governor can engage their own community in Opportunity’s mission and truly “love your neighbor.

If you are interested in starting a similar initiative in your community, Gene is happy to share ideas and strategies to help get you started. You can contact him at [email protected].

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