Joyful Giving: The Bill & Joyce Cummings Way

Maryann G. Bell
March 11, 2024

Since Melinda French Gates, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett founded The Giving Pledge in 2010, an estimated $600 billion has been pledged by the 241 signers. The commitment to giving away most of one’s wealth is a high-minded one, but many wealthy people who made this commitment have not yet decided where and how to give away their money. This isn’t because they have second thoughts about giving, but because they’re still looking for their “big idea” – the signature cause where they want to have impact and define their legacy. While building a fortune may have come naturally, some find that giving away money is difficult.

Even Warren Buffet donated a large portion of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006. “I don’t think I am as cut out to be a philanthropist as Bill and Melinda are” he told Fortune magazine in 2006.

But for Bill and Joyce Cummings, who made their wealth in real estate and then founded the philanthropic (though they don’t use that term) Cummings Foundation in the 1980s, the solution has always been simple: give back in the communities that helped make their fortune, and use their wealth to empower other organizations and individuals to give in those communities as well. At a recent event hosted by Wingspan Legacy Founder Christina Wing at Harvard Business School, I was fortunate to be able to interview Bill and Joyce and learn about their approach to giving and lessons for others who want to use wealth to make a difference.

The Cummings have long been known for two characteristics: modesty about their wealth and a spirit of commitment to others. One profile has referred to them as “undercover billionaires” for their ordinary, upper-middle-class lifestyle of living in a regular suburban home, flying coach and driving modest, not particularly new cars. It’s their instinctive sense of responsibility to the community that’s most impressive. “I’m just a Girl Scout,” said Joyce at the recent Harvard event, and “I’m just a Boy Scout,” Bill added. Their sense of giving originally had less to do with a deliberate notion of leaving a legacy and more an outgrowth of what they had been doing anyway. “Throughout our lives, we’ve helped at school, at church and in our neighborhood. Little things add up,” noted Joyce.

The little things have certainly added up. Bill and Joyce, the first signers in Massachusetts of the Giving Pledge, have given over $500 million to charities in the greater Boston area and have extended their generosity to Africa with University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda. What is most memorable, however, when speaking with Bill and Joyce is how much fun they are having giving away their wealth.

What path has made their philanthropy so effective and so joyful?  Three approaches make Bill and Joyce’s giving unique: Go Local; Transformative Funding; and Collaborate Ambitiously.

1. Go Local

When Bill and Joyce established the Cummings Foundation in 1986, their explicit goal was to support organizations that help communities in the greater Boston area where Cummings’ real estate holdings are located. They felt a responsibility to those communities because that’s where their success came from. They knew, of course, that a large percentage of Cummings staff and clients lived in those communities and would see the impact of their giving.

They also brought their local community into the giving process. Through its annual $30 Million Grant Program, the Cummings Foundation team galvanizes an army of volunteers from greater Boston who serve on grant award teams. These teams are created among varying professions including nurses, teachers, nonprofit professionals, and even several university presidents. Each group selects deserving organizations and awards multi-year grants. The selection teams are all from the greater Boston area, as are the recipients.

2. Transformative Funding

Bill and Joyce’s funding is often transformative in two ways: first, funding for the Foundation comes from the operations of the properties so there is the potential for the Foundation to operate in perpetuity. Distinctively, Bill and Joyce chose to donate most of the buildings operated by Cummings Properties to their Foundation, so the ongoing operations of the properties provides continuous funding.  Secondly, Bill and Joyce now award sustaining grants of up to $100,000 each year for ten years to many grant recipients, providing a needed respite in the annual fundraising demands of charities. These charities are transformed with this endowment-like funding.

3. Collaborate Ambitiously

Bill and Joyce visited Rwanda in 2013 and left feeling that they needed to help. What started as conversations about funding a dental program catapulted into a dynamic coalition. With major launch funding from Cummings Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, luminaries from Partners In Health, and faculty from the National University of Rwanda, Tufts University and Harvard University collaborated under the late Dr. Paul Farmer’s ambitious direction to create a medical training facility that would serve not only Rwanda and greater Africa but the world. Today, University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda serves as a groundbreaking medical education institution that attracts students from Africa, the Americas, Europe and beyond. This differentiated institution focuses on providing effective care in resource-poor settings.

Bill and Joyce Cummings are amazing humans who represent kindness, generosity, and humility. They have meaningfully improved the lives of millions and their story is inspiring to those seeking paths for their own giving … and they bring joy wherever they go because they are having so much fun!

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About Maryann G. Bell

Maryann has led transformation through board work in Austin after almost two decades in finance. Maryann holds a BA from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.