The Fundraising Executive

FRANKLIN AND WHITEFIELD: The Immovable Donor Meets the Irresistible Fundraiser

By Eddie Thompson | August 13, 2015 | Charitable Estate Planning Donor Communications
Benjamin Franklin and Rev. George Whitefield

Benjamin Franklin and Rev. George Whitefield

In a previous post I wrote about Benjamin Franklin’s 200-year endowments to the cities of Philadelphia and Boston. His testamentary gift was made for the express purpose of helping young men establish themselves by funding apprenticeships. Like so many planned gifts, Franklin’s bequest was motivated by his own life experiences. One of the first was signing on as an apprentice in his brother’s printing shop. Another experience that factored significantly in the Franklin endowments was his long-time relationship with the Rev. George Whitefield.

In his early 30’s, Franklin first encountered the “wild-eyed” itinerant minister. In 1739 Whitefield was in Philadelphia fundraising for an orphanage home in Savannah, Georgia. Whitefield was literally “wild-eyed” with strabismus, a condition that prevented his eyes from tracking in the same direction.

Franklin wrote a remarkable account in his autobiography about the Rev. Whitefield’s almost irresistible ability to raise money for at-risk kids (original spelling and punctuation).

“I did not disapprove of the design, but, as Georgia was then destitute of materials and workmen, and it was proposed to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here, and brought the children to it. This I advis’d; but he was resolute in his first project, rejected my counsel, and I therefore REFUS’D TO CONTRIBUTE.

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I SILENTLY RESOLVED HE SHOULD GET NOTHING FROM ME, I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles (coins) in gold.

As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to GIVE THE COPPERS. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to GIVE THE SILVER; and he finish’d so admirably, that I EMPTY’D MY POCKETS wholly into the collector’s dish, GOLD AND ALL.”

Franklin went on to describe Whitefield’s impact on one of his associates who had likewise determined not to contribute.

“At this sermon there was also one of our club, who, being of my sentiments respecting the building in Georgia, and suspecting a collection might be intended, had, by precaution, emptied his pockets before he came from home. Towards the conclusion of the discourse, however, he felt a strong desire to give, and apply’d to a neighbour, who stood near him, to borrow some money for the purpose. The application was unfortunately [made] to perhaps the only man in the company who had the firmness not to be affected by the preacher. His answer was, “At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely; but not now, for thee seems to be out of thy right senses.”

Bethesda Home for Boys

Franklin was unable to persuade Whitefield to build his orphanage in Philadelphia, but the mission to house, educate, and prepare orphaned boys for a trade struck a chord with the former apprentice. Franklin relented and invested in the project. In 1740 the Bethesda Home for Boys was established in Savannah, GA. With the exception of a few lapses due to fire and wars, the orphanage has continued to this day. More than 10,000 boys have been served by Bethesda in its 265 years.


1. Strategy without passion is less than compelling. Benjamin Franklin was the classic strategic donor, and Whitefield’s plan was strategically unappealing. Locating the boys’ home in Philadelphia would have been a much more efficient use of funds (especially for Philadelphia orphans). But in this instance, as occasionally happens, passion and persistence prevailed over strategy.

2. Representing a cause is not the same as owning it. Few modern-day fundraisers could match Whitefield as an orator. However, his success with Franklin was probably more than just his speaking ability. Like most highly successful fundraisers, Whitefield’s passion was fueled by his sense of personal ownership in the mission.

More than 10,000 boys have been served by Bethesda in its 265 years.

Fundraising in the 21st century has become a career option of choice, and it is indeed a noble occupation. Some, however, pursue it more nobly than others. That is to say, some fundraisers simply represent the organization that employs them while others take personal ownership in the mission. Of course they don’t own the nonprofit, but they (like Whitefield) are personally invested in the cause. The most noble of the fundraisers I know are not simply following a career path but pursuing a personal mission. A newly hired fundraiser may not have that full sense of mission ownership. in time, however, they’ll have to adopt it as one of their own if they are going reach their highest potential.

3. Whitefield was championing the cause for a particular group of boys with whom he seems to have a personal connection. His mission was not to simply help “some orphans, somewhere.” Whitefield wasn’t interested in Franklin’s “better” idea. His particular concern was for the orphans of Savannah. The most effective fundraisers I know are those who connect on a personal level with the benefactors of their causes—students, patients, or people in need. Jerry Lewis, the comedian and advocate for sick kids, always referred to them as “his kids.” Lewis was not just fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association; he (like Whitefield) was championing the cause of “his kids.”

4. Common philanthropic interests will join donors together in the most unlikely ways. Franklin, a philosophical deist, and Whitefield, the staunch Calvinistic, were polar opposites with regard to both fervor and theological essentials. Yet, they became lifelong friends and philanthropic conspirators—particularly in matters concerning orphanages, education, and apprenticeships. All the stipulations in the Franklin endowments originated in his friendship and correspondence with Whitefield.

The most effective fundraisers I know are those who connect on a personal level with the benefactors of their causes—students, patients, or people in need.

When friends, family members, and business associates can agree on nothing else theologically or politically, there is often a philanthropic interest that can serve as a common denominator. The wide diversity of personalities and opinions I have seen come together around a charitable cause is quite remarkable.

That is an application suited more for donors than for fundraisers. However, fundraisers who help foster associations among donors in addition to a relationship with the organization often find that those associations reinforce the long-term commitments to your cause and open doors for you into their extended friendship networks.

Ben Franklin’s endowment to the cities of Philadelphia and Boston demonstrate his strategic approach to philanthropy. That thought process, however, did not originate on Franklin’s deathbed. It was the result of a lifetime of experiences—particularly, an unlikely friendship with the fundraiser, George Whitefield.

Eddie Thompson and Walt Walker

Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson