Faith and education are priorities for Legates Donald and Michele D’Amour . . .
Even when they were a typical young couple struggling to make their mortgage payments, Donald and Michele D’Amour were guided by their Catholic faith to give to others.
“Regardless of how little we had, we were taught that we should learn how to share,” said Donald, chairman and CEO of Big Y foods, one of New England’s largest independent supermarket chains.
With giving already a priority, it was a natural progression for the D’Amours — as their lives evolved and their business grew — to consider ways they could channel their expanding resources into institutions and causes in need of assistance.
Now, through their generous personal and corporate gifts, the D’Amours — members of Legatus’ Western Massachusetts Chapter — are known as models of philanthropy, particularly for their work in education.
In recognition, Donald’s alma mater — Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. — awarded them honorary degrees in May. And on Oct. 4, the National Catholic Educational Association presented the D’Amours with the group’s highest honor, the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, for significant contributions to Catholic education.
Among their most noteworthy gifts are $4.2 million to Assumption College and $4 million to the Springfield Museums in Massachusetts, but they have also provided scholarships for Catholic elementary students. In addition, they’ve developed the Fides et Ratio Challenge Grant Competition to encourage small Catholic colleges to build on their Catholic identity in the areas of curriculum, campus life and admissions.
Besides their private giving, the couple has parlayed their interest in education into Big Y’s corporate donation program through a variety of initiatives — many overseen by Michele, who serves as educational partnership administrator for the company.
Big Y gives away more than $250,000 in scholarships every year — and its Education Express program has donated more than $4.5 million in equipment and other aid to 1,800 schools. Additionally, the Big Y Homework Helpline answers 300 to 350 calls per week when school is in session.
A heart for education
Michele, a former teacher who has served on the board of Springfield’s diocesan schools, says education is near to the couple’s hearts. “We are firm believers that it is important to educate the mind and the soul to produce productive moral leaders for tomorrow,” she said.
When he first met the D’Amours, Assumption College president Francesco Cesareo said he sensed their commitment to advancing Catholic education on all levels — but in particular Catholic higher education. “They really seemed to understand how important it was for the future to be able to do whatever is possible not only to sustain, but to strengthen Catholic education.”
The D’Amours say their giving has been motivated primarily by opportunities and needs. “Our choices are based on where we can do the most good,” Michele explained, “where our help will be a catalyst or open a door for an institution to enrich the minds and souls of students and to help with the propagation of the faith.”
“Generally speaking,” Donald added, “we try to give where we can have the most positive beneficial effect.” This means, for example, that the couple is more likely to give to a smaller Catholic college where their gift will have a greater impact than to a large school with a substantial endowment.
The D’Amours’ passion for these initiatives goes well beyond simply writing a check. “They’re very much interested in seeing the results of what they are supporting,” said Cesareo. “They’re interested in providing the support in terms of resources, but also the moral support in carrying through what they have endorsed through their philanthropy.”
NCEA president Karen Ristau says the D’Amours’ immersion in the causes and institutions they support is part of who they are. “It isn’t done from a distance,” she explained. “It’s a real heartfelt involvement.”
There’s a personal element to the D’Amours’ giving that is highly intelligent and informed, said Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute. “You can support existing programs at colleges and universities, but it takes a new thinking to change the atmosphere in which a lot of this transpires.”
Donald said the couple prays and studies about how to direct their funds, trying to make sure that whatever they’re involved in has the best chance of working. He says that their giving is a participation in the evangelical mission of the Church — whether they’re supporting the Catholic intellectual tradition or art.
“The last two popes emphasized the unity of faith, truth and beauty,” he said. “They’re all connected. We’re basically doing that missionary work we’re all called to do.”
At home, the D’Amours have tried to instill their commitment to giving in their five children by establishing charitable funds for them and allowing them to make their own decisions about where to make donations.
Michele said they’ve encouraged their adult children to find their own giving niches. Donald added that they emphasize giving as a matter of sharing time and talent as well as money.
The D’Amours have a simple philosophy for giving. People who want to get started in philanthropy, Michele said, should determine where their interests are and what they would like to see happen. Then it’s important to ensure their investment is used for the purpose they intended.
“And stay involved,” added Donald. “So many people gave huge endowments years ago, but they would be turning over in their graves if they saw their funds being used for things they wouldn’t support. You can’t just give dollars and be done. You have to research, follow up, measure outcomes and stay informed.”
The couple has been careful not to create dependencies, Donald said. “Sometimes, if you give an institution money, it becomes part of the annual operating budget and it doesn’t create change.” To avoid making such gifts, the D’Amours look to a network of friends and resources to steer them toward causes that are appropriate and away from ones that may not bear fruit.
Royal said the D’Amours are a model for business people who are also philanthropists.
“Their philanthropy and their business practices are seamless,” he said. “They make money in what I call a Catholic way. They’re locally engaged and also looking out toward the horizon for the bigger picture of what they can do. It’s inspiring when you come across a couple like this who are trying to do the right thing in every dimension of their lives.”
Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.
Faith and reason
When Donald and Michele D’Amour decide to fund a project or propose a program, the idea often springs from a conversation, a contact at a social gathering or something they’ve read.
The genesis of the Fides et Ratio Challenge Grant Competition followed the couple’s reading of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical of the same name on the relationship between faith and reason.
“It got us talking over dinner about what we could do,” Michele recalled. At the time, she said, they were disturbed to see that many Catholic colleges had strayed from theit original mission. So they started and funded a program that encourages Catholic colleges to strengthen their Catholic identity. Since the first grants were made in 2001, the program has awarded $1.5 million to six schools.
Next came the Fides et Ratio seminars, started in 2006 with the goal of bolstering understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition and appreciation of Catholic liberal education among faculty members from Catholic colleges, universities and seminaries in the U.S., Canada and South America.
Conducted under the auspices of the Faith and Reason Institute, the seminars began with 20-30 professors and administrators coming together for a week during the summer. This past summer, the seminars were held at five different locations for 130 faculty from 65 schools.
“The seminars,” said Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute, “Inspire faculty to go back to their institutions and from within them bring a fresh spirit or a new dynamism.” Since the seminars’ inception, nearly 350 faculty at some 70 institutions across the country have attended a seminar and had an experience of renewal in their exposure to the Catholic intellectual tradition.