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PERSONALITY & SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY
Roy F. Baumeister
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Career Life Story by Roy F. Baumeister

I was raised by wolves. Although this did not make for a happy childhood, it turned out to be one of a series of lucky accidents that helped bring me to a calling perfectly suited to me. To be precise, I suppose my parents weren’t literally wolves. But they were harsh, strict, dogmatic, Nixon-worshiping immigrants who plodded grimly and dutifully through life. They clung to each other and feuded with the rest of the world (including all our relatives and most of our neighbors, so we, like wolves, kept our distance) and insisted on unquestioning obedience and allegiance to their theories about everything. When I finally began to think for myself, I realized that much of what they taught me was wrong, though some was right. My career has benefited from two consequences of this upbringing. First, I have always wanted to find out what human life was really all about, and I habitually assume that my initial views are probably wrong. And, second, I try not to get emotionally attached to opinions and ideas. I don't mind revising my views as the facts change. (Heck, after a long time I even started to like my parents!) In fact I find it rather satisfying to update my theories. Each revision feels like putting another step between me and the wolves’ wrongheaded worldview.

Worried about a lack of challenge, my parents browbeat my elementary school into letting me skip fifth grade. That worked: sixth grade was suddenly quite a challenge. It meant growing up younger than all the other boys in my class, so everyone thought I was scrawny and puny, and we were all surprised in the end when I grew as big as the others. In the narrow horizon of my large suburban public high school, I got earmarked as a math whiz, which was also probably not the safest path to social popularity (though I recovered some by joining the swim team). I graduated in 1970, valedictorian in a class of a thousand students, though still a virgin. I selected Princeton for college on the basis of its then-ranking as the best math department in the country. But after two semesters of uninspired lectures consisting of bizarre n-dimensional derivations written on the blackboard, one after another, I wanted out. I decided to study philosophy and religion, where I could grapple with the meaning of life and other grand questions. My parents refused to pay my tuition for such fields of study, however. They thought the salary distributions showed that our society valued math and physics more than metaphysics. On this they were probably right!

Psychology was an unlikely compromise. My readings in moral philosophy had led me to Freud’s writings, and it was a revelation to see his approach: Rather than analyzing the concepts of good and bad, as a philosopher would, he tried to see how people actually obtained their concepts of good and evil, both in history and in personal development. I still recall my father’s snide reaction when I suggested psychology as a possible solution — “You’d be wasting your brain!” — but to his credit, he researched the matter before making a final decision. As luck would have it, there were some psychologists working for his corporation whose salaries were higher than his, so he had to concede that one could make a living at psychology. To be sure, the salaries of industrial psychologists in 1972 had had no real bearing on my eventual pay as a professor, but this was one of those accidents that led to where I am now.

Graduate school, for me, was a struggle to reconcile my broad interests in big questions and my young man’s grandiosity with the narrow, disciplined focus of experimentation in social psychology. One has to prove oneself one experiment at a time, and reviewers for scientific journals have little patience for broad speculations even if you do have statistically significant results. My advisor, the great Edward E. Jones, thought I was a bit too eccentric to be a success in the field, but he taught me the love and discipline of careful experimentation, and of effective scientific writing.

I received my Ph.D. from Princeton in 1978. Unable to land a job in the bleak market of the times, I was fortunate to get a postdoc in sociology at Berkeley. It was only for one year so I absolutely had to find a job, or leave the field. It was clear the field had no place for me. Time had almost run out when in May I was offered a job at Case Western Reserve University (the Harvard of Cleveland). I thought of it as a stepping stone and did not anticipate I would spend 23 years there. I was the only social psychologist there and was thus free to do whatever I thought but also without any disciplinary colleagues to advise me how the field worked. Having been raised by wolves, I really was no good at intuiting norms and so tried to figure out things for myself. This had limitations. It was years before I learned that it is useful, even important, to attend conferences. I didn’t figure out how to get a grant until I was already a full professor with 90 publications.

Despite these limitations, Case was a good environment for me: vaguely supportive, tolerant, staunchly meritocratic, non-political (so it was still permissible to think freely about anything), and it mainly respected good science. I tried some crazy new methods and directions, most of which flopped but some of which turned out great, and I did enough basic mainstream stuff to get by.

Once the experiments were going well, however, I discovered that one could tackle bigger questions with literature reviews. My first one, itself something of an accident, broke with the standard way of looking at things to propose a more interpersonal approach. You might think that social psychologists would be highly sympathetic to thinking of things in interpersonal ways, but in fact the field mostly thinks in terms of one person at a time. Inner processes get priority. Hence what people did was seen as a result of inner processes, such as attitudes, self-concept, and inferences. Ever the contrarian, I proposed to give priority to interpersonal processes. A person’s self-concept (what the person thinks about him or herself) matters to some degree, but people care much more strongly and immediately about what others think of them. What happens inside them is a result of and a service provider for what happens between them. Inner processes serve interpersonal functions.

To my surprise, Psychological Bulletin (I hadn’t known it was a prestigious journal and had submitted there thinking it would be an easy outlet to pad my pre-tenure vita) featured my review as the lead article in its 1982 volume, and it made a big splash. This experience showed me how to address broad questions. No one experiment can explain the nature of selfhood or the meaning of life, but by combining results of many different studies, one can begin to address these. That was the methodological key I needed to return to the grand philosophical questions that had fascinated me. I realized I could address them with data from the social sciences, especially if I were willing to review research outside my own field. Having been raised by wolves, I had no allegiance to any particular views, so I could just dive into the research literature and follow wherever the findings led.

Over the last several decades I have written a series of books that use social science methods and findings to tackle great philosophical questions. The first, Identity: Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self (Oxford, 1986) drew on history, literature, anthropology, sociology, biography, and several areas of my own field of psychology to learn about human selfhood. Back then, social scientists were obsessed with finding oneself and establishing identity, and I was able to reach a new understanding of that quest and its significance by pulling together evidence from many different sources. It was an intense, solitary, and fascinating exercise. I figured I could write more books.

Next came Meanings of Life (Guilford, 1991). I could find very few studies specifically concerned with what makes life meaningful. But if I expanded my search to cover happiness, family, religion, death, work, trauma and suffering, and major life changes, then a wealth of information was available. After that, I turned to the question of why is there evil — and what, as I realized halfway through the project, was the really puzzling question: why isn’t there more evil than there is? Evidence from multiple fields contributed to Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (Freeman, 1997).

Reading all about so much awful behavior for the book on evil left me hankering for something more pleasant. Mindful of the old hippie slogan “Make love, not war,” I turned to the research literature on human sexuality. A strategic mistake to write a book aimed for classroom usage led The Social Dimension of Sex to miss its proper audience, especially given that it was dropped amid the corporate takeovers and politics of the textbook publishing world, but my tour through the sex research literature also produced a series of journal article literature reviews that have had good scholarly impact with several fairly radical new conclusions about sex, including female erotic plasticity and an economic theory of the sexual marketplace.

Next came the question of human nature. This time, I read only psychology — but from the perspectives of other social sciences, trying to figure out what we had to tell them. The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life (Oxford, 2005) led me to a radically new understanding of the interplay of nature and culture. Contrary to the view, famously advocated by Rousseau in philosophy and Freud in psychology, that the individual and society are fundamentally at odds, my readings led me to the startling conclusion that nature made us precisely for culture. The distinctively human traits are those that enable us to create and sustain this new kind of social system called culture.

More recent books included a radical re-thinking of gender differences and gender politics (Is There Anything Good about Men? ; Oxford, 2010) and a popular audience book on self-control (Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength; with John Tierney, Penguin, 2011).

Thus far I have focused on the books and big-picture ideas, and these have been mostly rather solitary efforts. But the other half of my research career (and teaching too) has been laboratory research, quantitative hypothesis testing. This has the bonus of having been heavily intertwined with one of my favorite parts of the job, namely training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for research careers. By this point there are around 40 people who have completed a social PhD or postdoc with me, and all of them have gone on to academic jobs. Thanks very much to all their work, I have run an active laboratory for almost four decades. Themes of my lab work have been interpersonal processes and the self: self-control, rejection and belongingness, self-presentation, emotion, consciousness, free will, self-esteem, and many other related topics.

Thus, my career has been an unusual mixture of narrowly focused, laboratory experimentation and ambitious interdisciplinary books.

When I first went to graduate school in social psychology, coming from philosophy, I felt it would offer a career that might be satisfying in various ways — but not intellectually stimulating. Back then, the reigning theories were quite simple-minded, and complex issues were off-limits. I made my peace with that, partly by reading all manner of ambitious ideas on my own. But to my very pleasant surprise, during the 1980s social psychology became intellectually open and ambitious. For a couple decades, we had a thriving and fascinating discipline to work in. To be sure, those days seem rather behind us, with all the current fuss about replicating everything with large samples.

One perennial way of talking about researchers is to divide them into the “careful” and the “interesting,” or, put another way, the ones who want never to be wrong vs. the ones who want never to be boring. I consider myself somewhat careful but I hate to be bored or boring. Social psychology has given me several happy decades. At present, however, the never-be-wrong faction seems to have gained the upper hand. Certainly improving the quality of our scientific information is a good thing. But I’m hoping our field will shift back toward a more balanced approach, in which the more interesting researchers can feel comfortable taking a chance on being wrong.


Tributes

Roy deserves this wall and many many others! His work leaves me trembling with excitement every time I read it. He has had more impact on my work than any other researcher.

Catrin Finkenauer


On my best days as a social psychologist, this is how I feel: I have the most interesting and intrinsically rewarding job in the world, and the only downside is that there’s no time to pursue every interesting idea or do every study that’s worth doing. That I ever get to feel that way at all is to a great extent a gift from Roy. (Somehow, though, he does find the time to do it all…I still haven’t figured that part out). I was Roy’s post-doc at Case Western Reserve University (his second post-doc, I believe), and to say that working with him was a turning point in my career Is no less true than saying that morphing into a butterfly is a turning point in the career of a caterpillar. Who else would have encouraged someone with a background investigating spontaneous trait inference to turn his attention to defensive projection and the creation of UFO abduction memories? Thanks, Roy—I’m proud to be one among the many who bear your intellectual imprint.

Len Newman


I'm giving this donation to honor Dr. Roy Baumeister, in recognition of the tremendous contributions that he has made to the fields of social and personality psychology. Roy's work has been so influential in terms of its breadth and depth; he has been a true pioneer! It's wonderful to have an opportunity to acknowledge all that he has done--and all that he has given. I'm very pleased to contribute to the work of younger scholars and to honor Roy at the same time.

Julie Exline


What an amazing mind!

June Tangney


You know how you take a language class for many years and think that you are fluent, and then you go to where that’s the native language and you realize how much you need to get up to speed? It was like moving to another country, those first few months when I was a post-doc working with Baumeister. I just had no idea the intensity with which he approaches scholarship. And it’s not just psychology — about a month after I moved to Cleveland, he and his family took me to an amusement park. As Roy and I were waiting in line for a ride, he turned to me and said, “So besides psychology, what else do you know?” To which my inner reaction was, “Wait, what? Psychology isn’t enough?!” I think I said as much and he laughed, but his question was serious. Just because Roy is in a psychology department doesn’t mean that he is going to let artificial boundaries limit his ideas. Roy’s contributions to psychology are many but perhaps more remarkable is that he’s also contributed to sociology, religion, and philosophy. I think that’s one thing that I admire most about Roy, that he doesn’t constrain himself to what “should” be studied by psychologists or, for that matter, what “should” be studied at all. Roy leads the way not only by carving out new areas of study and new approaches, but more importantly by showing scholars that the most important goal is to find the truth — no matter where it’s found.

Kathleen Vohs


When I was looking for graduate programs one of my instructors said that Roy Baumeister was the best social psychologist going and encouraged me to apply to work with him. I thought it was a long shot but after a short call I was admitted to Roy's laboratory and headed to Cleveland and CWRU. Roy did not disappoint. He was productive and wise, as expected, but also warm, funny, and decidedly un-PC, much to my delight. Perhaps my favorite of Roy's fine qualities is the generosity of his intellect. He used it to make my ideas and all of his students ideas better, and to prod us ask more interesting questions. I will always remember the first paper I wrote with Roy. I sent him a first draft and he sent it back a day or two later. In the meantime the draft had somehow grown more complex ideas expressed in simpler, smoother language. I have been trying to generate that same magic ever since. Thanks for setting high bars for us to shoot for, Roy, and for sharing your infectious high regard for ideas.

Brandon Schmeichel


Roy’s brilliance in analyzing social processes, his unmatched ability in articulating his ideas in a rich and highly comprehendible manner, and his interest in a wide array of phenomena, make his contribution to the field of social psychology immeasurable. I feel fortunate for having my postdoctoral fellowship at his lab and for experiencing firsthand Roy's rigorous approach to research and open-minded approach to theory in social psychology. The welcoming and warm hospitality of him and his family (and lab members) during that time made the experience even more rewarding and influential. Roy – congratulations and thank you!

Liad Uziel


I met Roy at a conference in Ontario when I was a graduate student. After hearing his talk on an escape model of suicide and sexual masochism, I told Roy that I thought his theory might be useful for understanding binge eating. His immediate response was to suggest that we write a paper together on the topic, which we did and published in Psychological Bulletin. I was Roy’s first post-doc at Case Western Reserve University, which was one of the most intense intellectual experiences of my life. Roy loves to talk about ideas and we spent hours each day coming up with explanations for a variety of behaviors, from self-control failure, to guilt, to why people with high self-esteem sometimes acted in a self-defeating manner. Roy’s brilliance allows him to take complex and undecipherable patterns and bring coherence to them. I admire Roy for his unrelenting pursuit of the human condition, including its darkest elements.

I came to realize the enormity and breadth of Roy's contribution to the field of psychology while writing and revising my introductory psychology textbook. His theoretical work is featured in many of the chapters—this is true of most introductory textbooks. The important point here is that Roy’s influence has been profound in many areas of psychology, from applied to basic science. He is not only prolific but one of the most cited researchers in the history of psychology. I congratulate Roy on adding another well-deserved honor to his illustrious career.

Todd Heatherton


Roy challenged me to be a better academic than I ever thought I could be. He encouraged me to think deeply about my ideas and be receptive to contradictory ones. He taught me the importance of writing and gave me the skills to do it well. Roy’s eclectic interests inspire me to stay curious and never stop asking questions.

Lauren Brewer


Roy taught me that science doesn't need to be applicable to be important. His enthusiasm for new ideas has given me confidence in my ideas and the motivation to see them through. Roy taught me how to write and how to love to write. Buy a nice chair, turn off your email, and for the moment, assume your paper is excellent.

Roy is the most intellectually curious person I know, and I can't wait to hear what questions he asks next. I am deeply grateful for his influence in my research and my life.

Jessica Alquist


Roy, you’ve taught me how to attend to detail without missing the big picture. Thank you for sharing your infectious curiosity, love of knowledge, and openness to ideas. It has been a pleasure working with you, and I am lucky to be able to call you my mentor.

Sarah Ainsworth


Novel, big ideas is should matter most in science. Roy Baumeister serves as a continuous reminder of this broad scientific goal. That he has novel, big ideas is one thing, he has many, and across a number of scientific themes that – without exception - matter to the scientist as well as to the average person on the street. Roy serves as a prime example to scientists working in many disciplines and of all generations – now and in the distal future.

Paul Van Lange


When I came to the US to work with Roy as a postdoc in 1993, I was fascinated by his readiness to question established views and look at the flip side of things. His extremely broad perspective on various phenomena was amazing – one of the few people today to embody the tradition of the Humboldtian “Universalgelehrter”. I agreed with his argument that methods should be based on questions instead of questions being developed on the basis of the methods that were available—and we analyzed autobiographical narratives when many researchers were focusing on lab experiments. What I learned from Roy was extremely important to my career. In the years that followed, we loosely stayed in touch, and I am very happy that I was recently able to successfully nominate Roy for the Alexander von Humboldt Award, the highest award available in Germany to foreign researchers.

Astrid Schütz


Roy's candid and astute feedback impels me to become a better writer, thinker, and scholar. He is infectiously curious, and his broad range of knowledge allows him to converse intelligently about almost anything. He is not just a psychologist; he is an intellectual, in the best sense of that overused word.

Bo Winegard


Time and time again Roy has demonstrated this amazing capacity to identify a genuinely interesting question, hone it down to a set of compelling alternative accounts, and then identify some elegant set of experiments that clearly reveals what's going on. Invariably, his work is clever, elegant, and important.

Jonathan Schooler


Roy, not only have you been a source of great inspiration and ideas, you have been a source of excellent advice for me. I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from our many conversations over champagne and cigars. I look forward to many more.

Jim McNulty


Thank you, Roy. I can't imagine what my career would look like if you didn't exist, but I know it would be much blander. You are an inspiration.

Eli Finkel


Roy, your ability to impart knowledge has made me a better academic - your will to instill wisdom has made me a better man.

Mike Ent


Without you, the academic world would be bleak. Your contributions will continue to shape the field's knowledges for decades if not centuries to come. Thank you for being a wonderful mentor, friend, and scholar.

Nicole Mead


Dear Roy, If there is ever a time in your life that you may feel down, know in your heart how you lifted my life up, when I really needed it.

Xinyue Zhou


My warmest congratulations, Roy, for being inducted on the Foundation for Personality and Social Psychology’s Wall of Fame! The induction rightfully honors your innovative, groundbreaking contributions to so many areas of psychology (let along social and personality psychology). The first 35 years of your career have been an incredible intellectual journey. I hope the next 35 years will continue to be a boon to the field.

Constantine Sedikides


I can't think of anyone over the last 40 years who has had more of an impact, on so many different and core social psychological domains, as Roy. Nor anyone so forthright in his own opinions yet open-minded to the opinions (and evidence) of others. Congratulations Roy as you take your rightful place on the Wall of Fame!

John Bargh


I learned a lot not only from your research but also from your enthusiasm and commitment to understanding human psychology. Thank you for being such a great advisor and scholar who has inspired lots of people including me in social psychology!

Jina Park


I had enjoyed Roy's writing on many different topics over the years before I finally had a chance to join him and Kathleen Vohs on our one and only collaboration. The campaign to put the "behavior" back into behavioral science is really aimed at making our field more relevant and more interesting, two things Roy's research has always been. His creative and wide-ranging mind has long enhanced our field, and continues to do so.

David Funder


There very few people in our field who, whenever they write a book, chapter, or article, lead almost everyone to eagerly anticipate "I wonder what [Roy] has to say about THIS new topic?!" There are even fewer who actually deliver, time in and time out, such interesting, creative, honest, and thought-provoking ideas and arguments. As I have said to many people over the years, if our field did not have Roy Baumeister, including his keen mind, his willingness to push boundaries and new frontiers, and his tireless devotion to addressing so many truly fundamental questions that lie at the heart of what makes humans such interesting social animals, we would be a much less interesting, vibrant, and intellectually open field. Congratulations, Dr. Baumeister, for your numerous lasting contributions to the social and behavioral sciences!

Jeff Simpson


To have had one awe-inspiring idea after another, and yet to have remained so diligent as a researcher, and so caring - one may even say so sweet - as a friend, is a testimony to a great man.

Thomas Joiner


When Roy Baumeister was being recruited by Florida State University, I was asked to help out by meeting with him on campus. I jumped at the chance because I knew Roy would be a great catch, if we could reel him in. We had some serious interests in common: for example, self-deception and self-control – approached from different angles, given that my field is philosophy. And as we talked, I began to learn that Roy has the most-far ranging mind I have ever encountered. Over the past several years, we’ve talked a lot about another topic of mutual interest: free will. And that has led us to discussions of quantum mechanics, determinism, how mathematical truths fit into the nature of reality, and on and on. We all know that Roy knows a lot about the things he’s written about, but he knows a lot about many other interesting and important things too. I hope he has the time to work on all the topics that grab his attention. We would all benefit enormously from that. So maybe I should start trying to persuade him that, despite our on-going discussions, he and I have actually solved all the interesting problems about free will.
br> Roy is a brilliant psychologist, a good friend, and a good man. I’m extremely pleased that he has received this well-deserved honor.

Al Mele


Roy Baumeister taught me how to think critically, write clearly, and to never be afraid of the question "Why?" He was, and is, my adviser, my mentor, and my friend. It is because of him that I am able to do what I love.

Arlene Stillwell


One day in the late spring of 1994, when I had just about finished my third year of graduate school, Roy and I set off in a U-Haul, driving his and Dianne’s possessions from their rented sabbatical home in Charlottesville VA back to Cleveland. Shortly after we got onto the highway Roy said to me, “Tell me your whole life story, and don’t leave anything out.” Over the course of the next several hours I told him the story, and he would sometimes ask for additional information or clarification. Anyone who knows Roy well would realize why I was not at all surprised at the request, and why I complied so readily. This is the way that Roy builds an understanding of, and insight into the self and the social world; by listening to stories. The whole social world is the source of his ideas, and he is always at work.

Three years prior to that day I had arrived at CWRU for graduate school to study with Roy. I was a kid with raw academic skills and a functional, if undisciplined mind. It will not surprise the reader to learn that Roy had a deceptively casual approach to supervision and training, with most meetings proceeding as wandering conversations about the topic at hand. But it was clear from the start that he had an unrelenting focus on quality of thought and clarity of communication, and he constantly challenged me and my fellow students to improve these skills. A key aspect of our working relationship was the fact that I had the opportunity to observe first-hand the way in which Roy honed his own skills; through writing each and every day, discussing ideas incessantly, and taking an inquisitive approach to the world in general. Working with Roy I learned to take seriously the art and craft of writing, learned how to nurture and develop ideas, and in the fullness of time I began to resemble an academic and a psychologist.

Another central aspect of working with Roy was learning how to be an academic serving a field of study. Roy was committed to demonstrating how to be a good and ethical professional in the academic world. I learned how to review the work of others, how to present critiques, how to communicate with fellow academics, and how to share ideas with the rest of the psychological community in a positive way. I learned to treat ideas, and the people who thought them, with respect and care. The fact that Roy has quite a large number of good friends among his colleagues speaks volumes not only about the quality of Roy’s work, but also the manner in which he has conducted his professional life.

Reflecting on those days when I studied with Roy, it is clear to me that the things I value in my own career–my skills, and the way that I have chosen to conduct myself in relation to the work itself and other academics–have all been modelled after Roy’s example. I can’t thank him enough for providing me with a career’s worth of value, and it continues to be an honor to have been his student.

Joe Boden


Thank you for teaching me how to think about big ideas.

W. Keith Campbell


It is an honor to be the student of researcher as prolific an influential as Roy. He has had a profound impact on our understanding of human nature and has been a personal inspiration. Getting to know Roy personally has been a great pleasure. He has a rich sense of humor and encourages his students to be creative and follow their passion. Roy is one of the greats and the field would not be the same without him.

Michael J. MacKenzie


What I admire most about Roy is his capacity to let go of all conventions and formulate truly new theoretical ideas about how social interactions work. I have never seen such a unique and strong combination of being able to develop new theories, and critically putting them to the experimental test.

Jill Lobbestael


Roy is the smartest person I've ever met. But smart is just a state; it doesn't necessarily mean anything if you don't do something with it. This is what sets Roy apart: He does so much with it. He wields his intelligence relentlessly to figure out how the world works, paper after paper, book after book, talk after talk. I can't think of anyone who has made so many huge contributions to so many different areas and topics in psychology. They also happen to be topics most people are curious about: Does self-esteem matter? What is willpower? How do people act after they've been socially rejected? Roy is also wickedly funny; the loudest and longest laugh I've ever heard from a conference crowd was during one of his talks. I kept expecting a waitress to remind us of the two-drink minimum.

I was lucky enough to do a postdoc with Roy, and I have no doubt that I would not be sitting here in San Diego with a faculty job if it wasn't for him. Sure, I did some work, but I literally owe my career to him. I learned so much about ideas, good writing, and experimental design, and also those ineffable things that really make for success, like what to prioritize and how to balance work and life. We had many discussions about the joys of being an academic, and I am eternally grateful to Roy for giving me that opportunity.

Jean Twenge


I am glad to have Roy as a mentor because he thinks about so many different and interesting ideas. He is perfectly willing to take an unpopular position and advocate it for the purpose of finding scientific truth. And if the evidence shows he is wrong, he changes his mind. His open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity are the hallmarks of a great scientific thinker.

Andy Vonasch



Further Donations are always welcome, whether to honor Roy F. Baumeister or another psychologist. Be sure to leave a note regarding which mentor you would like to donate for and any testimonial you might like to give.