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7 Tips From Marlo Thomas for Making Charitable Donations 

The actress knows a lot about giving. Her father founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Marlo Thomas sitting on a couch.

Erin Patrice O'Brien

Actress Marlo Thomas, 80, grew up with charity at the center of her life. Her father, entertainer Danny Thomas, founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., to provide state-of-the-art care for children with life-threatening diseases at no cost to their families. After her father’s death in 1991, Thomas became national outreach director for St. Jude and helped turn it into one of the world’s leading pediatric cancer research centers. Over the years, she’s developed a unique perspective on the psychology of giving and what it takes to cultivate a generous heart. 

1. You don’t have to be a zillionaire to change the world

The biggest misconception people have about charity, Thomas says, is that giving a little bit doesn’t help. “My father used to say that he’d rather have a dollar from every American than a million dollars from a few,” she says. “Every dollar really does help. St. Jude costs $2.8 million a day to run, and the majority of that comes from small gifts.” 

2. Listen to what moves you

That’s the most important first step. When Marlo’s father died, she offered to fill in for him at the hospital. In time, she got hooked emotionally. “One day I walked into the medicine room and saw a little boy jump up on a stool and shout, ‘Mommy, I don’t have cancer anymore!’ ” she says. “How do you not get moved by that? I knew then that I wanted to be in a room where every child stands up and says, ‘Mommy, I don’t have cancer anymore!’ ” 

3. Give — even in uncertain times

It’s too early to tell what impact the new tax laws are going to have on giving, Thomas says. “People are being very careful about where they put their dollars, especially people on fixed income,” she says. “When things are volatile, people hang on to what they have to be sure that they will be safe.” 

4. Observe the needs around you

“I think taking care of people is all about noticing,” Thomas says. “Most people walk down the street, and there’s a homeless guy lying there or a woman with some cans in a bag, but they don’t see it.” During Thanksgiving week, Thomas will appear on the Today show with children from St. Jude to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the hospital’s Thanks and Giving program. “That’s where awareness comes in,” she says. “Real stories interest people. It puts a face on giving.”

Marlo Thomas with children from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Marlo Thomas with children from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

6. Cultivate gratitude

When their grandchildren were younger, Marlo and her husband, Phil Donahue, gave each of them $40 a year and told them to give it away. “They’d take time figuring out what really mattered to them,” she recalls. “It showed that money isn’t just something you spend on yourself. It grew their gratitude. That’s what you’re trying to do with children: grow their spirit.”

7. Never underestimate your impact

One of Thomas’ most moving stories is about Ira Jackson, a retiree on Social Security who managed to donate a little to St. Jude every month. Then he got a terminal illness. In a letter to the hospital during his final days, he wrote, “I’m prepared to die, but I’m concerned that the little children won’t have a chance to grow into healthy adults. My last wish is for you to use this letter to find someone to take my place.” The hospital shared his letter and got 900 new donors who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Ira knew that when he died, he would leave a hole behind,” Thomas says. “He donated about $80 total. It wasn’t billions, but it was a lot of money to him. He gave us as much as he could and was worried when he left that there wouldn’t be any more. I love that story.” 

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