Franci Neely on the health benefits of giving back

As the old adage goes: Health is wealth. But Houston-area philanthropist Franci Neely muses sharing actual wealth could be the key to better health.

  (photo credit: Franci Neely)
(photo credit: Franci Neely)

They say it’s not about what one receives, but rather about what one gives. The retired attorney and former partner at Susman Godfrey LLP devotes much of her time to giving back to causes close to her heart. While she is a generous patron of the Houston Cinema Arts Society — of which she is a founder — The Menil Collection, Nantucket Cottage Hospital, Holocaust Museum Houston, and the Texas Civil Rights Projects, among others, Franci Neely also has her own Franci Neely Foundation, through which she’s supported more than 100 nonprofit organizations. 

And the Houston-based benefactor is apparently onto something.

The Cleveland Clinic reports that giving to others has positive physical and mental health benefits.

According to the study cited, some of the health boosters associated with offering donations of money and time are decreased blood pressure and stress levels, longevity, increased self-esteem, and an elevated sense of overall happiness and fulfillment. 

Neely says the satisfaction of giving to others can also be seen on the faces of those whose lives she’s touched. She confesses some of her greatest treasures are letters of gratitude she’s received over the years. She says she’s also mastered the art of giving more to a smaller quantity of nonprofit organizations to make a bigger impact. 

Franci Neely Says Giving Is Better Than Receiving

“When I’m most blue, I try to remind myself that there are others who can use a boost, a helping hand, an ‘attaboy’ or ‘attagirl,’” Neely says. “It almost always works, just like making yourself smile on a cloudy day can make the sun inside you radiate warmth. I feel better when I think about someone other than myself.” shared that, according to Duke University professors, receiving generosity generates short-term joy. However, doing a good deed for someone else more often leads to long-term happiness and to a deeper degree of bliss, too.

Carnegie Mellon University also published a study stating adults over age 50 who volunteered at least four hours per week were 40% less likely to develop high blood pressure than their peers. reports that additional studies have shown volunteer work leads to lower cardiovascular disease risks and a lower overall mortality rate. 

In addition to many Houston and Nantucket, Massachusetts-based nonprofits, the Franci Neely Foundation has supported the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and many others. Championing the arts is also a passion of Neely’s; she has performing arts roots herself, dating back to her high school and college years. 

When Hurricane Harvey Hit, Franci Neely Stepped In

In 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Harvey ripped through Houston. Franci Neely says she immediately knew she had to do something to help those in need. According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm wreaked $125 billion in damages. Lamar University reports at least 88 people died due to the storm, 204,000 homes were damaged, and 8,000 families were moved to hotel rooms. 

A little over a year “after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, I decided to try to make the holiday season a happier one for families that had lost personal belongings, if not their entire homes, during the storm,” Neely says. “About five families, from grannies to preschool children, met me and my family at a local Target for a shopping spree.”

The doting mother, grandmother, and godmother — who says she cherishes spending time with her family and friends — wanted to help families in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. In fact, her own family is so dear to her, if she only had one more day left on Earth, Neely admits she’d want to spend it with her “mother, children, grandchildren, and godchildren, eating fried chicken in a field of bluebonnets” in her home state. 

To show their appreciation for Neely, the recipients of her holiday cheer posed for photos with her. To demonstrate her gratitude, one woman even wrote her this thank-you note on a Target bag: “Thank you for blessing my beautiful family. We are so very grateful … words cannot express … maybe hugs will show we are so thankful. Bless you and your family always, Franci Neely.” 

“My grandchildren and great-nieces shepherded the families and their young ones through aisles of sleepwear and toys, loading their shopping carts,” Neely recalls. “My family made friends and unforgettable memories that evening.” 

Filling their carts with Cat & Jack clothing and shoes and a bevy of holiday toys, it was a sea of smiles and tears of joy as Neely and her family got into the true spirit of the holiday season. 

It’s still something the Houston resident looks back on and smiles about. 

“I’ve never experienced more holiday cheer,” Neely says. “As I think about it these years later, I’m infused with happiness.” 

Franci Neely’s philanthropic work hasn’t gone unnoticed. She’s received many accolades for her selfless efforts to improve the lives of others, which says she’s committed to doing.

In March, she was honored at the Hats in the Park lunch benefiting the Hermann Park Conservancy, of which she’s been a longtime supporter, even donating $250,000 toward Hermann Park Conservancy’s betterment for the addition of a water play area for children. The park, which is more than a century old, is very dear to Neely, who says, “It is an artery that means a lot to many different types of people.”

In 2008, she was recognized as one of the Houston 50 Women of Influence. The University of Texas Law School also named her its 2007 Distinguished Alumnus for Community Service, and in 2001, she was recognized by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America Inc. and ABC’s Channel 13 as one of the 10 Women of Distinction in Houston.

Always focusing on the good in people, Franci Neely says she hopes to inspire others to follow suit and spend more time being active in their communities, volunteering and giving back to others. 

“My personal motto is to make every day better for someone other than myself,” she says. 

It’s also no coincidence that her favorite quote is a Winston Churchill nugget of wisdom: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

This article was written in cooperation with Hannah Madison