When it comes to "transformational gifts," some multimillion-dollar donors underwrite a building, or a research program.

Investment fund cofounder Ira Lubert underwrites pizza, slice by slice.

A donor who has given more than $10 million to the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, Lubert, who funded the United Way's Lubert Individual Development Accounts Program, knows that sometimes small is mighty when it comes to transforming a community, pizza by pizza, diploma by diploma, house by house.

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Definitions of "transformational giving" abound. They relate to size. They relate to impact. But what they all have in common is leverage, with effects beyond the size of the original gift. Often transformational giving involves using one set of dollars to attract more dollars and donors. It's a concept Lubert understands well, given his corporate background in real estate investment.

Other examples would be the $100 million gift the William Penn Foundation made to the city's Rebuild Philadelphia program for recreation centers and libraries, with $20.2 million set up to encourage matching gifts, and the sizable donation that Carole Haas Gravagno has made to the United Way for trauma education.

"Fifteen or sixteen years ago, someone explained to me what was going on with a lot of inner-city children," said Lubert, who made his fortune in real estate. "They get scholarships and grants to go to college," but then sometimes don't complete the first semester.

"They had enough money for tuition and room and board, but when someone said, `Let's go out and get a pizza,' they couldn't go. Or they couldn't afford a bus ticket home for Thanksgiving," he explained.

"And as a result of that, these young men and women dropped out of college — not because they couldn't do the work," but because they felt left out of campus life, or they couldn't afford to buy a textbook or pay a $60 lab fee,  said Lubert, current chairman of Lubert-Adler Real Estate Funds and cofounder of a string of investment funds that together comprise Independence Capital Partners.

"I didn't just want to write a check and walk away," Lubert said. "I, frankly, look at it as investment."

Whether they are striving for an education and a home or expanding a business, participants in the Individual Development Accounts Program receive financial literacy lessons on budgeting, saving, credit, and banking, all toward the goal of building a nest egg. When they reach a certain level, the fund will add more.

So, for example, a future college student who was able to save $500 would receive an additional $500, for a total of $1,000, enough to reduce student loans while paying for lab fees, books, bus rides home — and some pizza. Someone saving for a house might build up an account of $1,000, with the fund providing an additional $3,000, for a total of $4,000 toward a down payment and closing costs.

By being able to afford down payments and closing costs, the 166 homeowners helped by the program leveraged $8 million in mortgages.  Nearly one in five lived below the federal poverty line. The program, which became more fully invested in 2010, has a less than 1 percent foreclosure rate, matching national norms.

"People who own their homes tend to maintain them, and it provides stabilization to the kids," Lubert said. The parents, he said, become role models who understand finances. And, as homeowners, they also influence others on their block to keep up their homes, strengthening the community.

The program has helped 411 college students. In total, Lubert IDA Program graduates have saved more than $860,000 toward their education or home ownership dreams – which, through Lubert's gift, has been matched by nearly $1.84 million and leveraged into homes and better paying jobs through education.

If the key to transformational gifts is leverage, how does the leverage work?

David Gould, deputy director of community engagement and communications for Philadelphia's Rebuild initiative, explained how William Penn's $100 million gift would make a difference.

George A. Vare Recreation Center at 26th and Morris Streets in Philadelphia. The William Penn Foundation donated $100 million to the city’s Rebuild Philadelphia program for recreation centers and libraries.
TRACIE VAN AUKEN / For the Inquirer
George A. Vare Recreation Center at 26th and Morris Streets in Philadelphia. The William Penn Foundation donated $100 million to the city’s Rebuild Philadelphia program for recreation centers and libraries.

The city plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on soda tax revenues, on repairing and upgrading more than 100 recreation centers, parks, and library branches citywide. Besides the upgrades to a building or site, the project aims to support small and minority businesses via contracts, building their economic stability.

"William Penn's gift is immensely helpful," he said. "The most obvious piece is the money. It's a historic gift from the foundation."

But there are also practical considerations. "A gift of that size gives the program a lot of credibility," he said. William Penn has the organizational expertise to vet programs, and its support signals to other donors that the project is a safe place for their dollars. The matching component of the grant means that donors can give knowing that their donations will draw down funding from the foundation.

The foundation also convenes a roundtable of philanthropists. "When you are fund-raising, the hardest part is getting in front of foundations, and we've been able to do that from the start," Gould said.

And finally, "some funds are not as comfortable giving to the city," Gould said, preferring to funnel their gift through the foundation, "which is really important and not to be underestimated."

Carole Haas Gravagno
Carole Haas Gravagno

Some transformations can be small. Laura Otten, executive director at La Salle University's Nonprofit Center, argues that five sheep donated to a family halfway around the world via the Heifer International project can be a transformative gift to that family. In a way, she said, sheep may be more transformative than a building with someone's name on it.

Transformative gifts can also transform the giver, a lesson that both Lubert and Haas Gravagno learned through their gifts.

Growing up in the South, Haas Gravagno said, she was taught that young ladies kept their anger inside, and she did as she was taught. But she paid a price, emotionally and physically, with part of her intestines being removed due, she believes, to a stress-related condition.

It wasn't until she began learning about trauma through teaching childbirth and parenting classes that she began to connect what happened to her with what happens to people who have experienced trauma, whether it's violence, homelessness, divorce, or hunger.

At the same time she was gaining awareness, there was increasing scientific research connecting the impact of trauma on individual development and, through individuals, on whole communities.

"What happens to you as a child really impacts what you are as an adult," she said.

A former elementary and high school teacher, Haas Gravagno has made her philanthropic mark on a host of regional institutions, serving as board member, volunteer, and supporter of Arden Theatre Company, Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia Orchestra, Please Touch Museum, Play On, Philly! and the William Penn Foundation, among others.

Now she feels an urgency to fund and urge people to fund more training for teachers, social workers, and others on the front lines so they can recognize and respond to those, especially children, who have been damaged by trauma without causing more of it.

That's why, in 2009, Haas Gravagno, partnering with Lakeside Global Institute, a local trauma training organization, sought out the United Way to engage the community to combat trauma through training, community engagement, research, and policy.

United Way has invested more than $7 million — including almost $3 million from Haas Gravagno and her foundation — in building capacity, convening cross-sector stakeholders, developing a common language, and creating awareness through training, workshops, and other efforts. More than 900 professionals have been trained, reaching 33,000 individuals, an example of leveraging.

Haas Gravagno has taken the training herself, to better understand and serve. "It gives you a whole different lens to look at the world."