Small-Town Donor Leverages Personal Networks

Jameson (Jamey) French of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, knows how to get things done. He should—he’s been engaged in his community for decades as a businessperson, philanthropist, and board member. His community engagement started at a young age.

“I was an eco-activist at age 16. When others were protesting the war in Vietnam, I chaired the first Earth Day in my town.”

That was 1970. Fast-forward 45 years, and Jamey is still doing what he does best: engaging in what he believes in, rallying public support, and raising (and giving) philanthropic dollars. An individual donor to many causes and a trustee of many boards, Jamey donates considerable time, energy, expertise, and money to a number of local, regional, and national environmental and charitable organizations.

“I come from a family that earned its living from the land and from the forest,” says the fourth-generation lumberman. “Luckily our family’s attitude was that you grow trees for your grandchildren. My family had deep appreciation for and long-term engagement in protecting land and protecting the forest.”

“Maybe I can’t give a five- or six-figure gift personally, but I can engage others and piece together the total.”

Today Jamey chairs The French Foundation, a small family foundation set up by his grandparents. He also serves on the board of the Davis Conservation Foundation, a fund set up for environmental protection of the northern woods and gulf of Maine.

“Engaging with nonprofits has been highly valued in my family for a number of generations,” says Jamey. “It was modeled by my parents and my grandparents. Involvement meant more than writing a check; it was a highly valued asset. It was something you could talk about with pride at the dinner table, and it influences what I do today.”

Jamey often joins the boards of organizations to which he donates. He believes that, when you commit to something, you have to go all in. “Giving of your time, your expertise, and your life experience is just as important, or more important, than giving financially,” he says.

At the moment, Jamey is involved with more nonprofit boards than you can count on one hand. “Time management is a really big part of getting things done,” he says. Plus, chairing nonprofit boards for 30 years puts things into perspective. “I’ve had a lot of experience with the basic problems, strategic planning, nonprofit management, and governance. It’s easy to move the skill set around.”

One thing that’s valuable in individual giving, he says, is leveraging philanthropic networks. “If you believe passionately in the mission of an organization, you’ve got to commit and call on your networks,” he says. “Maybe I can’t give a five- or six-figure gift personally, but I can engage others and piece together the total.”

When rallying for an organization, French first looks to his personal network—his business, his family foundation, and members of his family—to see if they will join him in supporting it. He then looks to business colleagues and community members. “If I believe in something and want it to be successful—if I’ve made that commitment personally—then I can go to peers who I know share an interest and comfortably make the case why they should consider the cause as part of their philanthropy.”

In a small town like Portsmouth, it helps that most everyone knows one another. “There’s a network of people who are generous, and we tend to know one another’s interests. We’ve already built trust, and they know I don’t share a campaign unless I believe in it. That gives people confidence that something is going to work. It enables me to build community support.”

“More donors need to be willing to put their social capital, not just their financial capital, into making a project successful.”

One success story he shares is his work for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests—a 100-year-old land trust his family had been involved with for years. Jamey was board chair in 2001, and, along with other key leaders, helped meet a $30 million campaign for the centennial.

“I personally supported the effort; my parents stepped up as personal supporters; and other members of our extended family got involved as well. In addition, I called on people in the industry and my networks to participate. I was deeply involved, and we reached our campaign goal—raising what, at the time, was an enormous amount for this iconic organization. It moved the organization to the next big place,” he recalls.

“More donors need to be willing to put their social capital, not just their financial capital, into making a project successful,” he says. “I think people would be more satisfied with their philanthropy if they did.”