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My Philosophy of Giving

Steve Bahls, President of Augustana College

For my wife, Jane, and me, charitable giving isn’t an afterthought or an occasional response to a random request for funds. It’s a fundamental part of who we are: part of the DNA of our marriage and family. Giving to worthy organizations is one of the most satisfying things we do. We believe that generosity makes us better human beings.

We learned this early in life from our parents. Jane’s father, Don Easter, was one of the founders and longtime supporters of Des Moines Metro Opera, which is where Jane and I had our first official date—while serving as ushers.. Her father was active in their church and served as a Drake University trustee, among his many civic contributions.  To carry on the legacy, he created a family foundation; The lives of countless people who never knew him have been enriched by his generosity. 

My father, Carl Bahls, served in the Second World War and attended college on the G.I. Bill, which broke the cycle of poverty in my family. His father’s farm had been lost, like so many others, to hard times. Proud to have served his country, he was prouder still to have provided an education to his children and counted our accomplishments as greater than his own. I grew up seeing him volunteer for the church, for Easter Seals and our high school booster club.

Our families instilled in us the values that continue to be our North Star: the merit of hard work, the importance of education, and the imperative to give and give generously of time, energy, good will, and, yes, as you are able, money. 

Growing up, we were expected to set aside 10 percent of our earnings, from shoveling snow and other chores, for our church. Jane and I, in turn, have tried to model generosity and charitable giving to our three children and to the college and university communities we have had the good fortune to serve. 

For me as president of Augustana, fundraising comes with the territory. It’s a part of the job that I embrace wholeheartedly, both because I believe in our mission and role in the Quad Cities and, more fundamentally, because I believe in giving. 

Early in my tenure here, Jane and I decided that we could not ask alumni to contribute to Augustana if we did not similarly give to the institutions that have shaped our lives, personally and professionally. That includes not only my college and law school, and the undergraduate and graduate schools that prepared Jane for careers in teaching and writing, but the institution that gave me my first teaching job and the one I served as dean. And of course Augustana tops the list. 

Our gratitude runs deep, and so must our generosity.  

For us, nothing has been more fulfilling than our practice of endowing scholarships. They are perpetual gifts with the potential to change lives. We have established scholarships at five institutions that have touched our lives, and a sixth that is particularly close to my heart. 

My mother, Dorothy Jensen Bahls, had a natural interest in and instinct for politics. She would have made an excellent public servant, but did not believe she was well educated enough because she never went to college. She was the valedictorian of her high school class, but could not afford college. Money—or lack of it—circumscribed my mother’s horizons. It should not do the same to any young person today. 

I believe my mother would have been pleased that we endowed a scholarship in her name at her high school in Fort Dodge, Iowa/. We took from our surplus to enable a young person to expand the possibilities of his or her life. It”s our hope that it will enable a lifetime of giving for that person, and for another, and so on, in ever-widening ripples of generosity. 

At Augustana, we encourage faculty, staff, and students so they can grow in mind, body, and spirit while they are here. That’s why people form deeply personal connections with the institution. Because of those connections, alumni who find themselves blessed with good fortune later in life give back, just as Jane and I have given back.

When we talk to students, we also talk about other ways they can serve the college and serve in their community, and we model that kind of involvement, as well. I have chaired the Illowa Council of Boy Scouts, the Putnam Museum of Natural Science, and the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce, and I serve on the boards of the United Way, the Quad Cities Cultural Trust, and Quad City Symphony Orchestra Association. 

We were taught that you have a vessel of time, energy, money, and goodwill to use well in this life and pour out to others. Our obligation is to continue to fill our vessels through hard work and commitment to the things and people we care about and, by so doing, to encourage others to do the same. We have a real connection—an emotional connection—to the institutions we support, and so we give.