when Joan Kroc left an extraordinary bequest of over $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army a few years ago, I was reminded of so many stories I’ve heard over the years about even more surprising gifts from less likely prospects.
In her way, Mrs. Kroc was a surprise donor – despite her great wealth – because of her gender. While her husband was still living, she was frequently overlooked by charities because she was a woman and was treated as a mere conduit to her husband. Woe to those charities – and there were a few – that made that mistake with her! However, she was known to be very rich, and to be philanthropic.
It’s the “little old ladies in sneakers” that we need to pay attention to. Like the housekeeper who left a $250,000 bequest to a college in Mississippi. Who knew? Well, even if no one knew, she was obviously treated kindly and with respect by university staff, and that paid off!
Many people who live an obviously affluent life style may not have much left over for charity after all the bills are paid. But some people, like a couple I once worked with, hold the greatest potential for bequests and other planned gifts. They were retired schoolteachers who lived modestly, passing under the radar of any fundraiser. Yet, because they had benefitted from the generosity of others when they were children, they had a desire to give back. And their frugal lifestyle made it possible for them to arrange to give my community foundation a cash bequest of over $300,000, and as well as a life estate gift of their home which had an appraised value in excess of $250,000.
Then there was the retired doctor who lived with his wife in a modest apartment near his office, and who gave a small college a gift of over $1 million – the largest gift from a single donor in the school’s history. He was not an alumnus of that college. Yet, because the college development office recognized the signs of a good prospect, and cultivated a relationship, he chose the school over his own alma mater and the hospital where he had spent his career.
What are the signs of a potential large donor?
1. Does your prospect seem to live exceptionally modestly and/or frugally relative to his/her career?
2. Does your prospect have children who are already very successful? One $100,000 gift of stock from a retired schoolteacher was made at the urging of his successful son. Philanthropy is fun, and this son wanted his father to enjoy the results his gift made possible.
3. Does your prospect seem to welcome your visits and enjoy activities to which he/she is invited? This is a sign he/she is lonely and welcomes friendship.
4. Does your prospect exhibit a real love for your cause? Like the university housekeeper, he/she deserves your attention.
Pay attention to the less than obvious prospects, cultivate them, and – perhaps – you’ll be the next recipient of that large bequest from the surprise donor. Don’t judge a person’s worth by his or her appearance.
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