Have You Considered?

Recently a representative from my from the college where I graduated emailed asking for a chance to meet.  She wanted to learn how the college had shaped my life, how my education had opened doors for life successes.  I did not attend Princeton so the name of my college was not likely to open doors.  Rather it was the pragmatic engineering education which shaped how one thought and solved problems that would be key.

during her visit, I explained that and she thanked me hardly taking time to ask a follow up question.  Then she got to what she really had come to discuss.

“Had I considered making the college part of my estate planning”, she asked?

She explained several ways that I could leave money to the college upon my death or even give some to them now and more later.  She was sensitive to the possibility that I might have my children in mind and she had an idea how to do both.  My bequest would help the college to continue its growth both academically and with fun things (like a new field house).  She said I could be an important part of my college’s future.

There were glossy brochures and well written prose.  There was an invitation to a private campus tour and should any of my grandchildren be interested in an engineering education, well, there would be a special visit that would be arranged.  Hmmm.

I thanked her and said I had not yet made up my mind about life ending gifts.  She was equally thankful for having had the chance to meet.  We parted and life moved on.

I did not share with her that I had this uncomfortable feeling about the emphasis the college was placing on the “quality of life” aspects, like recreation centers, pretty grounds, new fields and field houses.  And at the same time, little or no apparent emphasis on the cost of 4 years.  (Fortunately, graduates from my college normally get very good paying jobs but debt is debt.)

There was something else that was nagging at my mind.  Finally it dawned on me.  I had heard the college pitch before.  Not from the college, however.  Financial planners use very similar language as my college visitor.  And so does the local zoo and museum of art.  And now I am hearing the same type of language from hospitals and medical disease funds like cancer research (St Jude’s is currently flooding the TV airwaves with pleas for donors to remember them in some financial way).  And if you lay out their requests and suggested methods for giving, they all are very similar.

Philanthropy is a big business and one that has kept pace with changing tax regulations.  “If you make your donation by December 31, it is totally tax deductible for 2013” they all shout.

In my view, charitable gifts are important.  They should, however, reflect the donors values far more than tax advantages.  Human nature, of course, makes recognitions  ranging from naming a bench, park, building wing, or for the big hitters, the entire building a strong drawing card.  Just the same, the purpose the gift serves ought to be more important than the tax credit.

One more observation.  This cottage industry created around bequests delivers a steam of money with generally little restrictions.  The grateful recipient is often poorly served by this stream of money.  Although a large amount of personnel time must be put into managing the endowments, the more insidious problem might be the weakening of financial management on all other college or university activities.

Work expands to fill the resources available.  I would have thought that colleges and universities would be committed to offering the best education at the lowest cost to greatest number of students, and not offering the best education at what ever it costs to those students who can afford the fare.

The responsibility falls on potential donors to determine whether ones gift is helping provide the services you admire, or is funding a bureaucracy creating more need for more funding.  While the decision to give is personal, we should be prepared to learn whether the gift is funding the search for more gifts and not what the institution is about.

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