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Donor Intent and the Legacy Gift: Advisors and Gift Planning Officers Working Together

Friday, September 10, 2021 11:07 AM | Anna Matheson (Administrator)

Written By: Colleen Becht-Folz, CFRE®, CAP®

Cases such as William Robertson, et. al v. Princeton University, et al., Tennessee Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy v. Vanderbilt, and locally, The Barnes Foundation’s Petition to the Orphan’s Court to Change Settlor’s Intent have all acted as cautionary tales to nonprofit organizations and donors, alike. The outcomes have defined donor intent in the nonprofit sector and changed the discourse between charity and donor to ensure that gifts are used to both benefit the charitable mission and remain true to the intent of the gift.


These conversations have brought wealth/estate planning advisors and gift planning officers to the table to help establish complex, blended gifts when working with high-net-worth donors. When these gifts come to fruition, mission activities - whether it is research, education, or community programs - will be eternally transformed for the betterment of society.

But, these conversations are few and far between for most fundraising professionals responsible for gift planning, particularly in organizations where programs rely on the vast number of previously-unknown bequests that are realized each year or are a low priority compared to more immediate gifts. Instead of these wonderful, proactive conversations regarding an ultimate gift at the end of life, difficult conversations between nonprofit estate administration offices and estate personal representatives (PR) occur on a more regular basis.

When a PR calls to inform an organization of a bequest and expresses how the decedent would have liked the gift used, too often, organizational staff must respond with the dreaded phrases “I am sorry, but that is not how it is written in the will,” or “I am sorry, but our organization does not accept these types of gifts.”  When a bequest cannot be accepted as written, the organization may need to take legal action to change the use of that gift, leading to a smaller gift than intended or no gift at all.

In many cases, a slight change in the bequest language before the will is finalized can make all the difference. Simple steps can be taken in both nonprofit organizations and estate planning firms that will allow gift planning officers and advisors to better serve shared clients/donors, as both have a vested interest in ensuring the integrity of Legacy Gifts.

For example, fundraising staff responsible for gift planning programs can get involved in local and regional estate planning councils; network with area wealth management advisors and estate planning attorneys; and provide accurate and concise bequest language to advisors to ensure that legacy gifts can be used by the organization and follow the true intent of the gift.

Estate planning advisors can ask more probing questions of their clients when charity is included in estate plans to determine the true intent of the legacy gift; compile a list of the most common charities that clients have named as beneficiaries and get to know the local gift planning officers for those organizations; and use gift planning officers as a resource, reach out to obtain the appropriate bequest language for clients from the organizations chosen as beneficiaries. (Of course, the conversation can remain anonymous).  

When estate planning advisors and gift planning officers work together, no matter the size or timing of the gift, the ongoing legacy of shared clients/donors is preserved.


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