The news is filled with stories of wealthy individuals who make substantial bequests to charity during their lifetimes or through their estates. Consider the Giving Pledge initiative, conceived by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates four years ago. The number of billionaires who have committed to give away at least half of their fortunes has risen to well over 100 and includes such famous names as Mark Zuckerberg and Ted Turner.
High-profile donors get their fair share of the spotlight, but they are not the only individuals making a difference. Many donors like to “fly under the radar,” maintaining modest lifestyles and shunning attention. Such donors often make smaller charitable gifts in life followed by surprisingly large bequests.
Recent “Millionaire Next Door” Bequests
Jack MacDonald, a Seattle attorney who died in September at age 98, lived frugally while quietly amassing a fortune.
At his death, it was announced that a $187.6 million charitable trust had been established to split the trust’s interest income among three charitable institutions: 40 percent to the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, 30 percent to The Salvation Army Northwest Division and 30 percent to the University of Washington School of Law.
Mr. MacDonald had no children of his own and his wife, whom he married in his late 50s, passed away in 1999. He lived simply and built his wealth in the stock market by investing his salary and funds inherited from his parents. Mr. MacDonald lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment and was known to clip coupons and visit multiple grocery stores to take advantage of the best deals. His stepdaughter recalls that he purposely wore sweaters with holes at the elbows in order to disguise his wealth.
During his lifetime, Mr. MacDonald regularly supported a number of local charities and at one time made a gift of over $500,000 to Seattle Children’s. Nevertheless, the three institutions benefitting from the charitable trust were surprised by the size of his final gifts, which are the largest ever received at each.
Mary Bailey, a widow whose husband died in World War II, spent much of her time at the East 58th Street branch of the New York Public Library system and walking through Central Park. When she died at age 88 in 2011, the Library and the Central Park Conservancy learned that Ms. Bailey had left them each $10 million.
Ms. Bailey inherited her wealth from her mother’s family, which was involved in the manufacturing of the marbleized composition books used in many schools. Despite her wealth, she did not behave like a typical heiress, avoiding the spotlight and preferring the bus to taxis and outdated furniture to designer pieces.
Ms. Bailey quietly donated to both institutions for years, but she made no gifts to either that would indicate her intention to leave such substantial bequests.
When Grace Groner passed away at the age of 100, no one suspected she was a millionaire. She lived modestly in a one-bedroom home a friend had willed to her and had worked as a secretary for Abbott Laboratories for 43 years. What no one knew was that the 1931 Lake Forest College graduate had made a $180 stock purchase in 1935 that had grown to a fortune of $7 million by the time of her death.
Ms. Groner had previously made donations to support her community, including a $180,000 gift to Lake Forest, but the size of the $7 million bequest to Lake Forest was completely unexpected.
While it is clearly important to maintain relationships with donors who are not reticent about displays of their wealth and welcome recognition during lifetime, do not overlook other loyal, long-term older donors. Proper stewardship of such donors may not only lead to rewarding personal relationships but may also yield surprising bequests.