Selling everything to help others

Fidelity Charitable donor Debra Mailman made a radical lifestyle change—for a cause. 

Debra Mailman sits atop a stone outcropping in front of a body of water.

Since selling her home and many of her possessions, Fidelity Charitable donor Debra Mailman now travels the world helping nonprofits organize aid to disaster relief areas.

After retiring from Microsoft in 2018, Fidelity Charitable donor Debra Mailman sold her house, gave away her furniture and put her car in storage.

Her goal: free up time and resources to help relief groups deliver aid after natural disasters, offering her skills as an operations and logistics expert—as well as her willingness to, when necessary, wield a sledgehammer. 

So far, she’s crisscrossed the northern hemisphere, pitching in to help ease suffering after hurricanes and earthquakes. She managed roof-building operations in the Caribbean after Hurricane Maria—“Had I ever built a roof before? No. But I did have the skills to figure it out!”—and slept on Army cots in a warehouse with 50 other aid workers after Hurricane Michael swept through the Florida panhandle.

“We would put on boots and pick up sledgehammers and crowbars and go help the local community,” she says. “I like to know that I’m doing something that has impact.”

For two years, I either did disaster work or couch-surfed.

Mailman’s grant recommendations from her Giving Account are equally impact-focused. She recommends grants to organizations like Team Rubicon, which mobilizes military veterans to help in disaster recovery, and to IsraAID, which provides humanitarian help worldwide.

“I care about a lot of issues, so I’ve always had a hard time finding a focus—but now, my giving is focused on disaster relief and refugees,” Mailman says. “I know I will never be able to do everything, but that doesn’t mean I’m not obligated to do something.” 

"You can develop courage you never knew you had"

As a single mom raising her daughter, Hannah, Mailman felt the importance of community support and wanted to provide it to others. For years, she raised puppies for international nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind. While at Microsoft, she developed a philanthropy curriculum for sixth graders in a local district. She’s always discussed her giving plans with her daughter, Hannah, and intends to make Hannah the successor on her Giving Account. 

“You asked what drives me—it’s building other philanthropists, paying it forward,” she says. “I believe in teaching children that when you get money, you can use it to go do something meaningful.” 

Always be prepared

Debra Mailman wears protective goggles, heavy gloves and a medical mask as she “mucks out” after Hurricane Harvey.

In addition to using her Microsoft-honed organizational skills to deliver aid, she also takes a hands-on approach. Here, she “mucks out” a Houston home after a hurricane.

Mailman’s volunteer schedule typically follows the rhythm of hurricane season from July through December, but disasters occur year-round, and last-minute travel is not uncommon. Though she uses her professional skills as a volunteer, her post-retirement role is also much more physically demanding. In Houston after Hurricane Harvey, in addition to building a distribution network for free furniture, Mailman donned protective goggles and a surgical mask to help gut water-damaged houses.

“I’ve learned that I have a reservoir of courage,” she says. “I’ve learned that if you want something and if you push your boundaries that are based on fear—not in a reckless way, but mindfully, towards something meaningful—you can develop courage you never knew you had.”

Making the leap into a major lifestyle change was both exciting and daunting, she says—and worth it.

“I saved during my career to make sure that, when I retired, I had the flexibility to go do my part to help the world,” she says. 

This testimonial and the statements and opinions expressed in this article are based on an interview with Debra Mailman who provided permission to use her name. This testimonial statement is not indicative of future programs and/or services and may not be representative of the experience of all donors.

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