Generous genes

A philanthropic mother and daughter open up about their family

Susan Lynn (left) and her grown children, Buzz and Jennifer, hail from a four-generation family of philanthropists and volunteers.

Susan Lynn (left) and her grown children, Buzz and Jennifer, hail from a four-generation family of philanthropists and volunteers.

Maybe real generosity feels a little ordinary to the benefactor, or like something simple and natural that's free of ego, at least. For Susan Lynn of Reno, it's just part of her family's rhythm.

Her mother, now a nonagenarian, was a civil engineer at Iowa State University in the 1930s, and later a bacteriologist. Many shrewd investments and well-lived decades later, her charitable endeavors include helping young women pursue careers in math and science. She also has a soft spot for veterans, animals and water-quality issues.

“She’s had to work very hard,” Lynn says of the family matriarch—a modest sort who hates being the object of fuss, and who’d especially cringe to see her name in print. Noted.

As for the rest of the family, well, they’re philanthropic, too. Like her mother, Lynn has long been involved with the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, a multifaceted organization that connects local donors to all manner of causes, and with the Nevada Women’s Fund, which provides grants and scholarships. Her brother and sister-in-law, Neal and Jo, also aid programs dear to their hearts, namely ones that help needy children and adults. Lynn’s grown children, Buzz and Jennifer, support charities too, including the Community Foundation’s You’N-I initiative, which benefits homeless and runaway youth as well as kids who are aging out of the foster system. And her 21-year-old granddaughter, Emily, is “really starting to get it,” she said, describing a young woman who’s begun to work with veterans at a Santa Cruz-area nonprofit, among other things.

A second granddaughter, Whitney Thompson, died in a 2011 car accident, not long after she’d fought an addiction and begun to turn her life around. It wasn’t until her funeral service that her heartbroken relatives grasped how deeply she’d connected with others all along—urging her friends to get treatment too, for example, and helping one leave a violent relationship.

“I found out so many of these things after she passed away,” recalls her mother, Jennifer Thompson. “I didn’t realize she’d been the caring shoulder for so many people. To me, she was my daughter who I was trying to direct and help, and I didn’t realize she was directing and helping so many people herself.”

The younger Thompson “also made us realize that there are a lot of kids in this community who are on the streets, either through their own volition or because their parents ceased to be parents,” Lynn said. “They really needed something—somewhere to go, or some resources—and they were completely overlooked in the community, except through the Children’s Cabinet, and other things.”

So how does one raise selfless offspring?

“Well, there are those kids who aren’t grateful, who’re the entitled ones who are about themselves and who don’t feel like giving anything back to society whatsoever,” Thompson said. “So every day, when [yours] are little tiny kids, you go to work and you have them be grateful for what they have. I think parents play a big part in having kids recognize that not everybody is as lucky as we are.

“We get that way though hard work and honesty, and being a good person, and doing the right thing. But I think there are a lot of people who may not be as fortunate with their families, and you don’t get to pick your parents, unfortunately. I also think they have choices as well, but they maybe don’t have the avenues to go forward.”

It’s worth noting that Lynn and Thompson didn’t volunteer for this story, and that when the mother and daughter talk about themselves and their kin, it’s with lots of cautions and modest caveats.

“We’re not grandiose at all,” she said with a chuckle. “We’re not the biggest names. There are a whole bunch of families here that have way, way more funding, and they all do their charitable contributions. Generosity is a good value to have—to help others and to give people a hand up without needing something back in return—though you always hope that if you give somebody a hand they’ll give somebody else a hand, and it will all snowball into everyone helping each other out.”