Every Thanksgiving since 1984, independent financial adviser Terry Hannon of Wheaton has mailed her clients a holiday letter that thanks them for their business and explains how she made donations to charities in their names.
"This year, we thought, 'Let's ask them to help,'" says Hannon, 53, who hatched the idea as part of her 30th anniversary celebration for 2014. "That's their gift to me."
In the annual message to 90 of her clients, she included a copy of the book "Random Acts of Kindness," a $100 bill and a request to "help someone who is less fortunate."
When Doris and Russ Framer of Batavia opened the mailing, the $100 bill fluttered out of the book.
"We're new clients of hers so we never expected a Christmas present or anything. It was quite a surprise," says Doris Framer, 64.
Accustomed to helping charitable causes, the Framers wanted to find the right recipient for this project. They called their pastor at the Congregational Church of Batavia, who recommended a family in need. The Framers doubled the gift, so the family ended up with $200.
"The pastor delivered it to the family, and they said, 'Now, we can have Christmas.' They really needed the money," Ruth Framer says.
"That's the beauty of this: watching it be contagious and grow," says Hannon, who is president of the B.R. Ryall YMCA in Glen Ellyn, volunteers with a shelter for domestic violence victims and has a long history of charity work.
"If Terry is giving us $100, we should match that for every member of our family," says Pete Schmidt of Campton Hills. "That would be a good way for us to grow the money."
So Schmidt, his wife, Carole, son Tyler, 23, and daughter Allison, 21, decided during Thanksgiving to donate $500 to the victims of tornado-ravaged Washington, Ill.
Hannon says she was pleasantly surprised to discover clients putting so much thought into the project.
"It's $100. It's not like it's $1,000," she says. "They think it's gold. They are driving around with the $100 bill looking for exactly the right cause. They want to do something meaningful with it."
That can be tricky.
"I wasn't sure. I write checks to charities, so it was a challenge to do something different and a little more personal," says Tim O'Brien, 64, of Glen Ellyn, who volunteers with the DuPage Habitat for Humanity and other organizations. He had his epiphany while buying a wreath at the B.R. Ryall YMCA and seeing an "Angel Tree" sporting a list of kids who need presents.
"I took two kids off the tree and went out and bought them some gifts," O'Brien says, noting the boys just wanted rather routine gifts such as jogging pants, a hoodie, pajamas and grooming items.
One client who lives out of state near an Army base gave the money to a military family while shopping. Another gave the money to a homeless man whose sign pleaded for a job.
"It's so heartwarming," Hannon says. "People say, 'Oh, what you've done is great,' and I haven't done anything. They did it."
Hannon, who is divorced, and her children -- Dennis, 24, working toward his doctoral degree in psychology; Bridget, 23, nearly finished with her master's degree in nonprofit management; Kevin, 21, a finance major in college; and Moe, 18, a college freshman -- have all been involved with charitable organizations. While her work includes clients with accounts worth millions of dollars, Hannon says she enjoys volunteering with the poor at the House of Good Shepherd, a Chicago charity that helps victims of domestic violence.
"I'm helping these women learn how to save $5 a week. That's pretty gratifying," says Hannon, who grew up on Chicago's Northwest Side. She remembers how her father, Thomas Brandt, worked as an independent insurance agent making sales door to door, while her mother, Maureen, helped run his office and cut family expenses by "making a lot of our clothes and the curtains."
A basketball player in high school and at Benedictine University in Lisle, the 5-foot-10 center quit sports to concentrate on her studies. After graduation, she worked as a CPA for a firm in Oak Brook before starting her own business, moving from Lisle to Lombard before settling in Wheaton. "There's always something that you can look at and say, 'I need to be grateful for this,'" Hannon says. "We were raised to give back, but I feel very strongly that I've been blessed in my life."
While her $100-bill project could be seen as a nice marketing tool, Hannon's clients say it is just an example of the way she lives her life.
"You don't see people doing that every day of the week. It just shows how Terry runs her business," Schmidt says.
Hannon says she plans to compile the stories of how her clients used their $100 bills and put them into a book in time for her 30th anniversary celebration. The financial adviser's gifts turned out to be a good investment in the generous spirit of people.
"Oh, my God," Hannon says. "It's been so much fun."