Philanthropists of the Year: Drs. Neal and Donna Mayerson

Donna and Neal Mayerson. Photo by Tina Gutierrez. Painting: Al Held, “B.C.,” 1979, acrylic on canvas, courtesy the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation

Donna and Neal Mayerson. Photo by Tina Gutierrez. Painting: Al Held, “B.C.,” 1979, acrylic on canvas, courtesy the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation

Each year, the Association of Fundraising Professionals presents awards to several individuals or organizations at its National Philanthropy Day Luncheon: Philanthropist, Volunteer and Emerging Leader of the Year, Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy, plus a new award for 2018, Innovator of the Year.

Generous at heart

Ask Neal Mayerson where he got his giving gene, and he’ll tell you first about his grandparents, who always had a charity jar in the kitchen even as they struggled during the depths of the Great Depression. Neal’s late father, Manuel – who along with his wife, Rhoda, founded the Mayerson Foundation in the mid-1980s – once told a group of young professionals, “You know what was even better than making my first million dollars? It was giving away my first million dollars!”

But if Manuel and Rhoda provided the impetus for the foundation’s early days, it’s Neal and his wife, Donna, who led the charge to make it into what it is today. 

The couple moved their young family back to Cincinnati from out west in 1991 to be near extended family and to work more closely with Neal’s parents at the foundation. Both doctors of psychology, they re-established their practices in Cincinnati and found themselves getting more and more involved in philanthropy work. Before long, Neal and Donna were leading the foundation.

“Our involvement with the foundation was to professionalize it by bringing greater amounts of structure and strategy, as well as staff,” Donna said.

Their efforts paid off. In the last 27 years, The Mayerson Foundation has grown to serve and partner with existing organizations on a variety of causes, particularly the arts, health and wellness, education, civic engagement, Judaism and inclusivity for people with disabilities. They’ve also created a number of programs and founded nonprofit organizations in areas where they saw great need. 

One notable example is the foundation’s Service Learning Program, which encourages high school students from all walks of life to get more involved in their communities. It’s that program in particular that led Clare Blankemeyer, a longtime staff member at the foundation, to nominate Neal and Donna for the Philanthropists of the Year award given by the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Full operations of the Service Learning Program, started in 1994, transitioned this year from the foundation to local organizations that will keep it going and growing.

“Nominating them for this award in commemoration of all the work and good that went into that just seemed fitting,” Blankemeyer explained. 

“The Service Learning Program has been a highlight for all of us and was a favorite of Neal’s parents,” Donna said. “The beauty of that program for me is that when we started it, we always felt like it was more meaningful and deeper to have this idea of shared community membership as opposed to an us-them charity approach. With this human-to-human relationship approach, ‘givers’ also receive, and ‘receivers’ also give. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship of respect and meaning. It was really kind of incredible [what came of that].”

Perhaps the greatest strength Neal and Donna bring to the foundation, aside from a natural penchant for helping others, is the melding of their professional skill sets with the work of the foundation. The couple were early pioneers in positive psychology – the Mayersons partnered with famed psychologist Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman in co-founding the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character. The VIA Institute focuses on understanding and applying people’s best psychological traits. The Mayersons make a point of “looking for the positive” in their philanthropy work.

“It made sense for us to try to bring science to the table in understanding what is best about human beings, as opposed to looking at when things go wrong in our lives,” Neal said. 

That approach has had a profound effect on the agencies they partner with, too.

“What Neal and Donna do that’s unique is when they look at a program or organization or whatever it may be, they say, What are they doing right? What are their strengths? How can we help build upon those?” said Blankemeyer.

 The far-reaching effects of that sometimes surprise even Neal and Donna. 

“Donna and I were traveling somewhere and going through TSA, and the TSA agent looked at my license and said, ‘Oh, Mayerson. Are you related at all to the Mayerson Academy?’” Neal recalled. “When I said yes, I was, she went on to say, ‘Oh, I used to be a teacher, and I attended training at the academy, and it was so amazing. And it’s such a great contribution [to the field and the community].’ And I thought, it’s interesting how things you do just kind of ripple. Here we were, just traveling, and there was a TSA agent [we’d been able to help].”

“It just always makes you pinch yourself, like, is this real?” he added. “That this work that we got started, people are taking it and running with it. And it’s making the kind of contribution that you never necessarily thought that a small family foundation in Cincinnati could do.”

– By Baihley Gentry

This year’s National Philanthropy Day luncheon, Nov. 8 at Music Hall Ballroom, has sold out. Meet the other 2018 honorees (and nominating organizations):

Volunteer of the Year: John Mongelluzzo (Stepping Stones)

Innovator of the Year: bi3 (Ignite Philanthropy)

Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy: Finnegan McCarthy (Cancer Support Community)

Emerging Leader: Rosa Nemec (Girl Scouts of Western Ohio)

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