Donna Wilhelm opens the door to her LEED Gold home. Her front patio features a soothing waterfall, and the inside boasts museum-quality art mixed with toys for her 4-year-old granddaughter, who lives next door. Wilhelm, the founder and initiating donor of KERA’s Art & Seek, will be honored as “outstanding philanthropist” Nov. 8 at Dallas’ National Philanthropy Day lunch. Nominated by the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, Wilhelm has contributed more than $10 million to arts, culture and education organizations. She is a 2016 SMU Meadows at the Meyerson honoree. Wilhelm holds a degree in studio and art history from City University of New York. She studied jewelry design at the Parsons School of Design. Her memoir, “A Life of My Own,” publishes this month.
What inspired you to be so philanthropic?
I was married for 34 years and my life was dedicated to my husband’s career. We moved nine times around different countries and within the U.S. When I left the marriage, I finally had resources of my own, and I had the freedom to do whatever. I went through an intense process of finding myself and found that my personal enrichment, retreat and fulfillment has come from creative work — visual arts, jewelry arts, writing the book. The turning point was deciding I wanted to pay it forward. In my life, the kindness of strangers has helped me. I got a college education that way. I’ve never learned the name of the person that was my benefactor. Philanthropic intent gives my life meaning and purpose. I went through a year of training with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Philanthropy Workshop. I’ve learned how to stretch my money, how to be diligent about how and why I give and to be true to my personal mission.
What’s your book about?
I’ve written it over the course of 10 years. I wasn’t intending at first to publish it. I had to learn the craft of nonfiction. I took classes, joined a writer’s group, hired coaches and educated myself. The book is being published by a not-for-profit publisher, Deep Vellum. The launch is in December at Arts & Letters Live. The net proceeds will benefit underserved women, girls and youth education.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m proud of finishing my book. I’m proud of the ways I’ve touched lives through my philanthropic intent. I don’t always do it in a big way with a huge amount of money. This is my personal money. I don’t have inherited money. I work with, for instance, Connect Teach, which is about teaching slum children in India and getting them access to good teachers through the internet.
“No matter the adversity, no matter how sick you might feel or how little energy you might have, do something new.”
What’s the background on your LEED Gold home.
I wanted to build a green home. I was living in
a gated community and they thwarted me. My daughter had the same intent. We had a family meeting and both built green homes next door to one another.
Tell me about the art collection in your home.
I have a home in Santa Fe, and it has a lot of art in it too. I’ve done remodels or built new homes and put my mark on them. Artists tell me it’s what makes my home personal, warm and inviting.
How do you feel about getting the “outstanding philanthropist” award?
I didn’t go around trying to get a lot of publicity for myself. At first I was doing things anonymously. But then I learned, mostly from when I was on the board of KERA about 15 years ago, that advocating for what you believe in is a powerful tool.
Who is your greatest influence?
My book tells the story of how my past influenced me. I was raised in an immigrant boarding house in Hartford, Connecticut. My mother was a Polish immigrant, and she ran the boarding house. For 14 years when I lived there, immigrant families passed through my life. Most were kind strangers who were there for a brief time. They influenced me.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Know yourself, cherish yourself, celebrate your life, celebrate who you are. Make good choices.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I try to celebrate every day in some way. Bonnie Pitman, who was head of the Dallas Museum of Art, lives a life that I admire. Her message is to do something new every day. No matter the adversity, no matter how sick you might feel or how little energy you might have, do something new. And that means pushing past your comfort level.
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