November 29, 2005
by H. Peter Karoff
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on bequests and legacies—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
IN THINKING about legacy, of which bequests are one aspect, the place I would begin is with the notion of alignment.
If philanthropy is fundamentally an articulation of values and passions, and I believe that is the case, than the first, and most important, alignment is with one’s deeply held individual or family beliefs. For example, TPI is working with a donor who has strong Catholic social values, and is considering legacy gifts to as many as twelve institutions, primarily Catholic colleges and universities but also to medical institutions and global relief agencies. These gifts will be $1 million a year “forever” unless the recipient organization no longer embodies the foundation’s stated Catholic values. How to make that determination, and how to evaluate if a recipient has strayed from those values is not simple, but after considerable thought we have in fact come up with a methodology and protocol to make those judgments that are intended to be fair to the organization and true to the donor’s intent.
Interestingly, this same donor has another strongly held view, that his legacy gifts should be transformational. Defining what transformational means, and how to measure it, is as equally challenging as determining the meaning of Catholic values. Using as the point of departure an essay on transformational philanthropy(1), have come up with a definition that satisfies the donor and will hopefully serve as a guide to the recipient organizations.
There is always tension and ambiguity in this kind of discussion. It is to some degree “messy” which seems just right. In fact, my antenna goes up when donor intent is presented as a catechism as opposed to a more fluid, living, breathing and adaptive footprint. One can not know what the future will hold. What is considered a violation of today’s Catholic values, or any other dogma or belief system, may not be so considered in the future. In this example, the donor wisely has not been specific around any one of many controversial issues, i.e., stem cell research, birth control policies, married priests or gay marriage. It is not that the donor does not believe deeply in the right and wrong of those questions, because he in fact does, however, he is persuaded, somewhat from his smart children but more from his own experience in life, that the world we live in is always in great flux, and that the mainstream of today’s values may well shift in twenty-five, fifty or one hundred years. The same is certainly true of the meaning of the term transformation, which will clearly be different in the future than it is today.
The second major legacy alignment is around goals. What does the donor want, or hope, will be the result of their gifts? Those answers greatly influence major philanthropic policy decisions.
Often the primary legacy goal is to pass on philanthropic values, and establish a family foundation, or giving process, that will serve as a vehicle to bind the family together far into the future. If that is the case, the donor must come to terms with what he wants and what the next generation
H. Peter Karoff is founder and chairman of The Philanthropic Initiative, Inc. (TPI).
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