Debra Thorburn Ashton, Planned Giving Pioneer

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From Cornelia Fortier

My good friend, Debra Thorburn Ashton, WGBH’s Director of Planned Giving from from 1978 to 1985, has died after a seven month battle with cancer.

I first met Deb at the end of 1979, when I interviewed for the major donors secretary position in WGBH’s fundraising department. Jeanne Brodeur, then head of fundraising, met with me first and then, Deb, who I would be working with, joined us. I remember thinking: Can this woman really be this upbeat? And, of course, the answer turned out to be: yes. Deb’s energy and outlook were as unflagging and enthusiastic as anyone I’ve ever met. Once we began to work together, I also found out about her wall-rattling super-charged laugh as well!

We stayed fast friends, even after we both moved on from WGBH. Deb left the station in 1985 to head up planned giving at Wheaton College and subsequently, was lured to Boston University in 1991, followed by a role as Director of Gift and Estate Planning at Boston College.

When Deb decided it was time to do things differently, she tapped her incredible energy, intelligence and experience and wrote the definitive planned giving “how to” manual for non-profits, first published in 1988. It was a major undertaking (pages: 568; weight: three pounds) but with it and with the earlier creation of her own consulting company, by 2000, she was fielding non-stop requests for seminars at non-profits around the country. Deb was now her own boss and worked as much as she wanted to.

In 2016, when Deb sold her Quincy house to live full-time at the Cape, she wound down her consulting. She continued to manage the distribution of her book, which was still selling.

Living at the Cape introduced Deb to new pleasures and hobbies: planning and overseeing the renovation of her house in Sandwich, designing her garden and landscaping, supporting (and adopting from) the Massachusetts Humane Society and meeting many new friends. Though her energy was now channelled in new directions, her enthusiasm – and joyfulness – remained as strong as it was 42 years earlier, when we first met.


  1. Doug Gortner on November 17, 2022 at 10:45 pm

    Henry Becton, my Deerfield Academy classmate and longtime director of WGBH, was excited to learn that Deb and I were special friends. He told me that she was the best, which I affirm.

  2. Doug Gortner on April 15, 2022 at 5:28 pm

    I was just getting ready to ask Debra to collaborate with me on “brushing up” my CASE book on Deferred Giving for Independant Schools when I stumbled on this article. Back in the eighties, when I was starting Deerfield Academy’s planned giving program, a little group, me, Deb, Doug White and Stu?, DOD at Governor Dummer, got together for a few days twice a year to bitch about our bosses, eat and drink well, and occasionally take to the links. As was her nature, Miss Deb stirred the pot and kept us laughing. When I entered the consulting stage of life, if I had a presentation to PGOs, I would always call her up and she would send me a discount certificate for her book that I could hand out with the course materials. I last spoke with her about three years ago, when I called her up just to say Hi and have some laughs. I always classify PGOs in one of two categories, the Undertakers and the Risk-takers. The first group of hand-wringers are deadly; the later the best of the best…and Miss Debra was Leader of that Pack! Requiescat in Pace dear friend.

  3. Michael Jansen on March 1, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Deb represented the best of gift planning. She was my inspiration since I bought her first book all those years ago.., and then her second. Last visited with her at a program in San Antonio. Now in this work 40 years after a career on public accounting and banking, I live and love it more everyday because of her work.

    We have lost a giant in the field of gift planning and to society at large.

  4. Laurie LaMothe on February 23, 2022 at 2:06 pm

    Sadly, I just opened my Planned Giving Today Newsletter and read the In Memoriam for Deb Ashton. We were recruited to Boston University in 1991. What great days those were for bringing together major and planned giving. Her sparkle was unlike any other PG expert at the time. She was a great colleague. When the 2nd edition of her “Blue Bible” came out, I talked to her for the first time in years. RIP Deb.

  5. Lo Hartnett on January 19, 2022 at 9:42 am

    I am so sorry to hear of Debra’s passing. We worked in that office for years.

    After Kerr and Sam left, Deb joined my department. She and I embarked on a quest to educate execs about the need for ongoing Planned Giving at the Foundation. Every time we’d get a budget, another Capital Campaign was planned and put PG on a back burner. I finally convinced Becton to fund PG for 3 years, and he approved it. However, in year 2, another Cap Cam was planned, but this time Planned Giving was incorporated into the campaign very effectively.

    Deb was a total delight in my department. Her passion was infectious, and her PG knowledge was extensive. She was such an asset to GBH and to our donors.

    One visit was to a Major Donor who had a very early and broken satellite system Debra was determined to help, and got one or two engineers to the donor’s property (on Cape Cod?). They were able to fix her system at Deb’s urging, and she donated bigtime.

    Very sad to hear of Deb’s passing. She left her mark on the PG industry.

  6. Kathryn sanfilippo on January 16, 2022 at 7:07 pm

    I never saw Deb without a smile. Kathryn

  7. John Kerr on January 13, 2022 at 5:59 pm

    Here’s how Debra Thorburn Ashton came to ‘GBH:

    Sitting in John Brown’s planned giving seminars in Harvard Yard in the 1970’s, Sam Tyler and I realized right away that Debra was by far the brightest light in the class.

    I was the station’s development manager then. Sam had just taken on leadership of the $10 million WGBH Independence Fund. We were doing well, but neither of us knew anything about planned giving. So Sam and I signed up for John Brown’s planned giving seminar.

    After a day’s work at ‘GBH, we would grab dinner in Harvard Square and then walk over to John’s class.

    Bright-eyed, unflappable, and energetic, Deb Thorburn was sitting in the front row and of the seminar where she would set the evening’s pace and lift the class. She answered every question with clarity, expertise and precision. Her example hauled seasoned trust officers, development professionals, and non-profit leaders onto new, higher ground of fund-raising confidence and success.

    Deb’s positive attitude and energy was infectious. Her expertise about trusts and philanthropy topped everyone in the room. She was, I think, 22 years old at that time.

    Brown’s seminar stressed knowing your stuff, doing well-prepared solicitations, and treating every donor with respect. Deb set the standard.

    When we were in that seminar, Deb was working on trusts and estates for Newell Flather. Newell by then was a leading Boston trust officer, philanthropist, race and gender equality champion, community leader, and internationalist. He described Debra as one of the brightest and most positive and energetic persons he’d ever had on his staff.

    I called him and told him that we had noticed Debra in the seminar and wanted to invite her to come work at ‘GBH and set up a planned giving effort at ‘GBH. Newell said he’d miss her if she left his bank, but thought it might be a good advancement for both Deb and ‘GBH. Newell was that kind of person.

    So during a break in the seminar, Sam and I posted ourselves outside the ladies’ room, met with Deb,, and told her right then and there that we hoped she’d come to work at ‘GBH.

    That’s what she did.

    In those days, we all sat in a big bullpen open office. We could all hear Deb talking to ‘GBH donors on the phone to explain the advantages of making a planned gift. She’d then go visit such viewers and listeners in their homes and offices — and return smiling.

    Deb soon began attending public broadcasting development conferences and encouraging development directors across the country to increase fundraising success with planned giving programs. No one knows how much money she brought to ‘GBH and public broadcasting — nor how many new programs she helped launch — but I know the figure is enormous.

    Debra went on to top development jobs at Wheaton, Boston University and Boston College. She also wrote The Complete Guide To Planned Giving — a 568-page must-have bible for development professionals everywhere. So her work — and wisdom — will be available to all forever.

    Debra made raising money for ‘GBH and its programs fun. She was an energetic, essential member of ‘GBH’s “Money Room”.

    We are sad and sorry to hear that Debra is gone. But her work, her energy, her grasp of the business, her dedication to the cause of public broadcasting, her knowledge of trusts and planned giving, and her infectious laugh will be with us forever.

    Thank you, Deb! From all of us, and from every donor you touched.

    -John Kerr

  8. Beth Young Torcivia GLS '73 on January 8, 2022 at 7:40 pm

    Deb and I graduated from GLS in 1973, so we have known each other since we started in 1967. We reconnected during reunions, and when I moved to the Cape in 2018, we decided to make an effort to spend time together. It was lots of fun…Deb had the same laugh and sense of humor I remembered. I am sorry we didn’t get more time together…I will miss you, old/new friend.

  9. John Carver on January 8, 2022 at 3:25 pm

    I have just now learned of Debbie’s death and I am greatly saddened at the loss of my pal. We all must have our memories of her because she touched us in a way that went far beyond mere friendship. She could at times be your best friend if you needed a boost of confidence or someone to whom you could share a secret and always ready to hear my jokes and return the favor with a tale of her own.

    T-Bird (that was my nick name for her) arrived on the scene as a 22 year old kid from Dorchester, carrying only a high school diploma, that great smile, boundless energy, and a fire of ambition burning inside. Before long it became apparent that Deb had that special quality of brains, beauty, and a drive to achieve something meaningful in her life. And achieve she did. After her stint in the planned giving arena, Deb climbed higher than anyone thought, as she became a very popular speaker on individual giving practices and then backed it up with her books and writings. An over-achiever indeed.

    In particular, I remember a night during the Channel Two Auction. Deb was scheduled to be a table captain for one of our Big Donors from the Foundation world…basically schmoozing…for which she had a natural talent. After that she filled in at Crossover, relieving me for a three-hour session, and finally at around midnight she was behind a camera with John L. Sullivan shooting the last stages of the evening. That was pure Debbie…always learning, always trying to go beyond the horizon.

    But at the top of the list was Debbie’s relentless, out-going personality that captured our hearts and minds. I ran countless miles with her as we trained together for the 1981 New York City Marathon. For six weeks in the fall we would meet after work and on weekends to jog the loop around The Charles and leave our WGBH world behind. That’s when our friendship blossomed and we just connected with each other.

    There must be some more Debbie stories out there. Let’s hear them.

  10. Christine (Cavicchi) Adams on January 7, 2022 at 7:56 pm

    Deb hired me (christine Cavicchi, now Adams) in 1982. I think I replaced Cornelia Fortier in the development department working with Deb and the campaign team. She and I have remained life-long friends. There are so many WGBH stories to share between us. I will miss her dearly.

  11. Laurie Everett on January 7, 2022 at 1:51 pm

    I never met anyone who had her energy–just amazing. My most vivid memory of her is one year when she was training for the Boston Marathon. I think both she and John Carver (someone will correct me here if I’m wrong) were training the same year and she ended up finishing before him–which was a bit of a surprise to her.

  12. Marsha Salamoff Green on January 6, 2022 at 5:39 pm

    So sorry to hear this news. Deb was one of the first people I met after being hired by Jeanne Brodeur in the Fundraisng Department in 1981. She was always cheerful, bright, and smiling. I was fortunate to reconnect with her at a WGBH reunion and was so pleased to learn of her success with her book.

  13. Nancy Brown LaBrie on January 6, 2022 at 4:34 pm

    I am so sorry to hear of her passing. We connected after my days at GBH when she was working at Wheaton, my alma mater. She was one of the most upbeat people I ever knew. So very sad.

  14. Susan Galler on January 6, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    Very sad. Deb was also a competitive ballroom dancer.

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