Commentary: Find the Right Mr. and Mrs. Jones

Keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a uniquely American phrase that typically has a negative connotation. It’s commonly used as shorthand for a concept sociologists call “competitive acquisition.” Our neighbors the Joneses buy some stuff, so we feel a need to buy the same stuff along with more stuff. As a result, the Joneses then feel compelled to buy more stuff to match all the stuff you just bought. Thus begins the neverending arms race to acquire more stuff than the Joneses. That’s competitive acquisition.

Yet the desire to keep up with the Joneses is not inherently a bad thing. Distilled to its essence, keeping up with the Joneses is nothing more than a form of benchmarking. Benchmarking is a common business practice in which we compare our results to those of our peers or some objective standard. The purpose of benchmarking is to analyze our own performance and determine how we might improve.

Benchmarking, used properly, is a phenomenally effective business tool. The key is to identify the correct benchmark – the standard by which we are judging our own performance.

As humans, we tend to compare our lifestyles and life choices to those we respect, people whose values and priorities are closely aligned with our own or as we would like them to be. A neverending cycle of buying useless stuff is not an inevitable outcome of keeping up with the Joneses. It all comes down to the kind of people you select as the Joneses in your life. It’s whom you choose as your personal benchmark.

If your Joneses have a noble set of values and priorities – ones that are focused on community and living a generous life – then personal benchmarking can be a powerful tool that encourages us to more virtuous behavior. It’s what the charities of our community count on every day.

Consider what you do whenever you receive an annual report or quarterly newsletter from your favorite charity. If you’re like the typical American, it won’t take very long before you’re looking through the list of donors, often divided by giving levels, to see how you compare to those people whom you like and admire. Wow, look at how generous the Joneses are to Birch Creek! Geez, it’s great to see how much the Joneses love the Land Trust!

These donor lists are the most explicit way charities help you benchmark your own giving against people whose values and priorities you respect. Another subtle but even more inspiring way to accomplish this goal is to tell the story of the Jones family and why they choose to give.

Look again at a charity’s annual report or quarterly newsletter and you’ll often see several donor stories. These are typically well-known and respected people in the community who have agreed to publicly share the reasons behind their generosity. While you may not identify with every story that is shared by the charity, the hope is that over time, you’ll find a donor whose narrative resonates with you. If the charity can help you find your own personal Jones family, you too might be similarly inspired to be generous.

That’s why at the Door County Community Foundation we spend so much time telling stories. In our communication materials we share stories of people like Greg and Marsha Meissner. After a lifetime building a successful landscaping company in Door County, they now spend much of their energy volunteering and giving back to our community. Then there’s Bill and Mardi Glenn, a couple that had already created a legacy of giving in their original home community in Illinois. They brought that tradition with them to our peninsula after purchasing their first home in Door County in 1975.

Mike and Orlaine Gabert retired permanently to Door County in 1999 after visiting us every year for virtually all of their adult lives. They’ve included a remarkable gift to charity in their estate plans. Similarly, Julia Van Roo Bresnahan first arrived as an art student in 1970 and has spent part or all of her time in Door County every year since. She too has included significant gifts to Door County’s charities in her estate.

When good people like these allow us to tell their story, it helps others see what is possible in their own lives.

Perhaps our community’s ultimate example of a story of generosity is the Community Foundation’s annual Celebration of Giving. This free luncheon brings the community together to celebrate and recognize a Philanthropist of the Year. The people we honor aren’t necessarily donors to the Door County Community Foundation, but all of them are exceptional donors to Door County. These philanthropists give of their wisdom, leadership and financial resources to the causes and charities they care about most.

In the last dozen years we’ve celebrated and shared the stories of Door County’s great philanthropists like Nancy and Bob Davis, Anne Haberland Emerson, Miriam Erickson, Jo Guenzel, Tim and Sue Stone, Dave and Vonnie Callsen, Cyndy Stiehl, and too many other wonderful people to list here. We hope that celebrating people like these might inspire you to give back in your own way.

For you, the Joneses might be named Meissner, Glenn, Gabert or Bresnahan. Ultimately, we at the Community Foundation don’t care what part of Door County you are most passionate about. We care that you find your passion and are then inspired to take action.

If each of us is able to identify with another whom we admire, a person whose values and priorities are focused on making our community a better place, then keeping up with the Joneses would be truly a beautiful thing to behold.

Bret Bicoy is president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].

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