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On Philanthropy


On Philanthropy by Gil Kemp '72


Gil Kemp '72 is the founder of Home Decorators Collection. Shortly after the company was acquired by Home Depot in May 2006, he and his wife, Barbara Guss Kemp, announced a $10 million pledge to The Meaning of Swarthmore campaign. Write to him at
hen first asked to write a brief explanation for Swarthmore about why I give, I demurred. I didn't want to come across as either preachy or sanctimonious. But when pressed, I was forced to admit the original catalyst for my becoming oriented to philanthropy was a presentation over 20 years ago by Swarthmore's Eugene Lang '38, founder of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. And that memory led me to hope that I could help reinforce Gene's message and perhaps spread it to a new audience.


The occasion was a cocktail party in Gene's New York City apartment over 20 years ago, for an earlier campaign for Swarthmore. I remember vividly Gene's joy in giving and also how some of his biggest rewards in giving had come years earlier when he was giving modest sums at a modest income level. I remember deciding to start giving what my wife Barbara and I could right away, even if we felt a bit stretched, and not postpone giving to some future moment that we might be fortunate to collect a large sum in the lottery of business entrepreneurship.


Giving Back

Now that I have sold the business I started 16 years ago, Barbara and I can do more, and our mindset is quite different from the days when our very modest giving essentially was adding to the debts we were incurring to launch the business. Our gifts today are easier to make because we decided a long time ago that we didn't want to change our lifestyle if our income jumped. We've had a very comfortable life for the past 25 years, and there is nothing material we long for: no yachts, second homes, or expensive art. And for over a decade, I have motivated myself to work hard to strive to grow the business by telling myself that if the business prospered greatly, I would use a large portion of the wealth created to try and make a difference for others.

Gil Kemp '72 named a professorship in natural sciences for his father Walter, a retired physician, at a ceremony this fall. Read their remarks here

No Large Inheritances

Barbara and I have been blessed with two marvelous children. But we told Rebecca and David as teenagers not to look to mom and dad for a large inheritance. Now they are in their 20s and I think they are finding their own way quite admirably. We certainly haven't forced them to live with a hairshirt, but they both recognize we haven't insulated them from the adventure of life and the creation of happiness that ultimately is up to both of them.



Why I give ultimately centers on happiness. It's trying to emulate the joy I saw 20 years ago in Gene Lang - and still see in him as he continues to make a difference. And it's trying to generate more of the happiness I've already experienced in making gifts. I've been very fortunate in experiencing more than my share of what Barbara and I call Top 10 days. Three of these days have come in the past year.

Biologist Rachel Merz has taught biomechanics, marine biology, and invertebrate zoology at Swarthmore for more than 20 years.

One was surprising my Swarthmore cross country coach, Joe Stefanowicz, with a commitment to renovate men's and women's locker rooms in his honor. A second was surprising Barbara by endowing in her honor a scholarship at Yale. (Not everyone can be fortunate enough to go to Swarthmore!) A third was the inauguration last fall of Rachel Merz as the first Walter Kemp Professor of Natural Sciences. My father Walter was there with family and friends, and I still feel a little guilty about how good the experience made me feel.

Positive reinforcement works, and Barbara and I are eager to experience more of these Top 10 days that have been so exhilarating. And I'm convinced that these pleasures are available to all of us.