Anyone with a background in major and planned giving knows there is no limit to how creative donors can be in making gifts to an organization. Some unusual offerings require major and planned giving officers to get creative and find a way to structure the gift in a way that will be beneficial to both the donor and the organization. Other gifts may seem simple but are surprisingly more valuable than they first appear.
We asked some of our consultants to share a few of the most unusual or surprising gifts they have ever worked with. Here are their stories.
John Jensen, Sharpe Group Senior Vice President & Senior Consultant
A gift of cash … crop
One gentleman decided to give his favorite charity a 20-acre California vineyard that his uncle left him. The donor had never seen the property. He rented it out to a nearby farmer, who paid him just a bit more than the annual property tax bill. The town assessment was $50,000, so he thought this was a reasonable thing to give. After talking with the donor about the property, I knew the value was much more.
California Proposition 13 passed in 1978 and limited the annual property valuation increase to no more than 2% or inflation—whichever was less. Sure enough, we determined the true value to be close to $500,000. This was too much for the donor to just give away.
After some discussion, we all agreed that the best approach would be to use it to fund a charitable gift annuity to provide him with extra retirement income. The charity accepted the gift and immediately sold the property to that same farmer, who removed the vineyard and planted almond trees—the primary cash crop in the area. By the way, this was a raisin vineyard rather than grapes for wine. This turned out to be a fine gift for everyone.
My first (and last) used car gift
Early in my career, I was the first executive director of the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, back when it was a relatively small, largely unknown charity. I did anything I could to raise operating funds. I was offered a used station wagon from a donor in Rockland, some 80 miles from Portland. I had to be in Rockland for other business, so I picked up the car and drove it to Portland, where I lived at the time. A Portland car dealer had already agreed to buy it for $800. The problem was that a 1970s-era station wagon did not get the same mileage as today’s cars. I never thought to ask the owner about this. Driving the 80 miles, I ran out of gas three times. I did eventually get it to the dealer, but this was the last used car I ever accepted …
Kristin Croone, Sharpe Group Senior Consultant
Putting the fun in funeral home!
Truly, at 10 a.m. on my first day as a planned giving officer, I received a call from an elegant matriarch in town who happened to own one of the city’s oldest funeral homes. The funeral home, like many businesses at the time, was moving further east, near the suburbs. The original funeral home is a stately columned limestone building on one of the main streets.
The owner had the vision that our growing organization could use the building as our headquarters. We, in fact, had been looking for a permanent home. The timing was ideal except their new embalming facility was still under construction. The donor wanted to make the gift immediately but continue to use the embalming area until her new facility was complete.
We worked it out and moved in. Fortunately for us, the new facility was completed a bit ahead of schedule, and there was very little overlap in operations. Although our storage area still had a few “boxes.”
Our strange new home came in handy a few years later when we were working with a group to establish a music museum. One of their primary exhibits was to be a prominent musician’s metallic blue limousine with a white furry interior and built-in bar in the back. The limo was very long, and no one had a garage large enough to store it securely—no one except for the charity that had just moved into a funeral home! Our underground garage, complete with a drive-out ramp that once housed the hearses, became an ideal temporary home for the limousine!
Barlow Mann, Sharpe Group General Counsel
Catch me if you can
One Friday afternoon, I received a call from a university planned giving officer who had just gotten off the telephone with an alumnus donor. They discussed whether the donor could give an old car that was no longer running and receive an income for life.
It turns out the car in question was an early Ferrari that the alumnus bought used in the 1960s, while he was a student. The alumnus had stored the car in a shed for nearly 50 years.
It is possible to use tangible personal property to fund a charitable remainder trust, and that’s exactly what the donor did. The CRT sold the car at auction and netted over a million dollars, which has been making regular payments to the donor for over 15 years.
There were a number of tax and other issues that needed to be considered, but in the end, this gift provided a very happy ending for all involved.
A get-out-of-jail-free card?
One of the craziest gifts that one of our clients has received is a winning entry in a national promotional sweepstakes. The $1 million winning game piece arrived in the mail with no return address. However, under the promotion rules, the winning entry was nontransferable. Nonetheless, the for-profit company that sponsored the sweepstakes made the seven-figure payment to the charity.
At first, we weren’t sure what the tax treatment of the gift would be, considering there was no receipt and other charitable reduction rules. We would later find out that the donor had been involved in a criminal scheme to rig the outcome of the promotion and defraud the company.
Despite the unexpected turn of events, the corporation decided to let the payment to charity stand and fund its charitable mission.
Laura Knitt, Sharpe Group Senior Consultant
The house with a twist
I’ve always enjoyed working with people on gifts that take thought and coordination. I think it’s a privilege to get to know them—especially their backgrounds and motivation. While each relationship is unique, the lessons you learn increase your helpfulness to others and make the work fun.
I remember fondly a woman in Ohio who had recently moved to an apartment and called asking how she could give her house. As I asked her questions about the house, such as its value and whether she had previously tried to sell it, she described a groundwater issue requiring that a crank connected to the foundation be periodically turned. In our phone conversations, I guided her through selling the house herself, keeping a portion of the proceeds for her immediate needs and giving cash for a gift annuity. She was delighted by all of this and looked forward to my eventual visit to her small town near Lake Erie.
When I arrived, she proudly showed me her new duplex apartment and special furnishings. Then she drove us around town, showed me the house, introduced me around and took me out for lunch. Back at her apartment, we talked a little longer, and that’s when she shared that she had a son but didn’t know anything of his whereabouts. In previous conversations, she’d maintained that she was widowed and had no children.
Whatever may have eventually happened during administration of her estate, her contribution to my organization was made. I found it interesting that her situation of claiming to be childless—while actually having offspring somewhere—wasn’t the only one I encountered over the years.
Jana Lawyer, Sharpe Group Senior Consultant
A red kettle ring
We are all familiar with the sound of the bell that rings in front of our local grocery stores and malls during the holiday season, seeing the smiling face of a Salvation Army volunteer standing next to the red kettle hoping passersby will slip in their loose pocket change.
One anonymous stranger had a little more than spare change or single dollar bills in mind. According to the Salvation Army, a 1.81 carat antique diamond ring was placed into a red kettle in the Memphis area last year. The ring was inside of a plastic bag with a note that read, “Help the poor.” The ring, a vintage heirloom with 11 old miner cut diamonds, was appraised for more than $6,000 by a local jeweler.
The Salvation Army stated, “We may never know the story behind the ring’s original owner or what motivated them to so generously drop it into our red kettle on that December night, but year after year, we continue to be amazed by the unwavering love and support from our neighbors. To the anonymous ring donor, your gift will change countless lives in our community this Christmas. THANK YOU!”
Well, it just goes to show that the holiday season is truly the most generous time of the year! Stories such as this can encourage others to think outside of the box when it comes to giving. Sharing compelling donor stories in a planned giving newsletter will help encourage donors to one day leave a lasting legacy within your organization.
What unusual or surprising gifts have you worked with? Email info@SHARPEnet.com to share your story.