The Least Expensive Gift You’ll Ever Make

Our whole community was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of a couple of Door County’s most generous souls. Ruth Barker and Lee Traven, two absolutely wonderful people who lived long and inspiring lives, each left this world in April. Ruth Barker and her late husband Hartley were named by the Door County Community Foundation as the 2006 Philanthropists of the Year. That same honor was bestowed upon Lee Traven in 2011.

The philanthropic nature of these good folks was well known by all, so it’s not betraying a confidence to note that many local charities will be recipients of the Barkers’ and Traven’s generosity through their respective estate plans. Very often the charitable gifts in an estate plan are the largest contributions that a donor will ever make. It’s a remarkable way to leave a true philanthropic legacy. Unfortunately, not nearly enough of us are following in the footsteps of these wonderfully generous families.

While the numbers fluctuate slightly from year to year, the annual Giving USA study tells us that about 75 percent of Americans make at least one gift to charity during the course of a year. Yet only about 7 percent of us include a charitable contribution in our estate plans.

Similarly, University of Georgia conducted a longitudinal study of Americans more than 50 years old who donate at least $500 a year to charity. During more than a decade of research, the study found that only about 9.5 percent of these older adults – all of whom are regular donors to charity – included a gift to a nonprofit organization in their estate plans.

If you ponder these statistics for a moment, you’ll realize just how strange this really is.

Consider that when you write a check to your favorite nonprofit organization today, that’s a gift that has a direct and immediate impact you. You’ve just given the money away so you cannot use it for anything else should the need arise.

But when you make a gift to charity in your estate plans, you’re giving the money away at precisely when you no longer have any need for it. The charitable contributions you make through your will, trust or other plans are the cheapest gifts you’ll ever make! These contributions cost you nothing because you’re giving away the money you no longer need.

Now please don’t think that this is an argument against making an annual gift to your favorite charities this summer. Those contributions are important and you should be thanked for your generosity and sacrifice. But the question is why don’t more of us include a gift to charity in our estate plans because that contribution requires no sacrifice of us at all.

Certainly everyone’s first obligation is to ensure that their spouse and minor children are cared for. But once your kids are adults, how much should go to them as opposed to the charities and communities that you love?

The billionaire businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett has a wonderful perspective of what a person should inherit. He says we should leave our children “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but no so much that they could do nothing.”

Buffett has even started a new family tradition with what he calls a “reverse birthday gift.” Rather than give his adult children more toys or money, he makes a birthday gift to their respective foundations so that they can put their talents to use distributing those charitable dollars and make the world a better place.

Of course, few people can afford to give $100 million a year to each of three different foundations run by their children. But many of us could make a gift of a few thousand dollars a year and set up a Donor Advised Fund at a community foundation so that our children could have the joy of giving back in their own community.

And while we might not have the financial resources of some of the great philanthropists who have left this world recently, almost all of us have the ability to do something. Leave your house to your church. Name charities as the beneficiary of your life insurance or IRA. Include a bequest to a nonprofit in your will. There are lots of ways to make a final gift and leave a philanthropic legacy. Speak with your attorney, estate planning professional, or just call us at Door County Community Foundation to learn how.

First, take care of your spouse, then make sure your children can stand on their own. And finally, consider using what’s left to do something incredible for our community and make a gift to charity in your estate plans.

This column by Bret Bicoy was originally published in the Peninsula Pulse on May 23, 2013.

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