Ethical Boundaries: Walking the fine line in Planned Giving

Dear Blog readers,

Let’s be honest.  When it is your job to raise funds (planned gifts or otherwise) for a charitable organization, there is almost no way to stay completely free of ethical boundaries.  It is very easy for bloggers and pontificators of the world to cry out at the injustice of a hospital attempting to woe a very peculiar billionairess (at least that was what we guessed she was) who decided on her own to live her last 20+ years in Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

Yes, I am back discussing Huguette Clark – the mysterious, reclusive woman who lived over 20 years at the hospital where I was planned giving director from 2004 to 2006.  I never met her, had no idea where in the hospital she was, and only speculated at the time about how Beth Israel might somehow be included in her estate plans (if she decided to ever do one) and  maybe rebuild the hospital (that desperately needed a rebuild).

One of my bosses was one of the very few who actually met with her: once a year on her birthday!  Yes, the former president had a relationship with her and tried to encourage giving, succeeded to some extent but failed (at least in our minds) at obtaining a transformational gift (that she could have given). Yes, I tried to get her accountant (at a luncheon) to let us know if she had estate plans and if Beth Israel was in them, and no, he did not give me a straight answer.  While enjoying the salmon, he did remark that if only Beth Israel had truly catered to all of Ms. Clark’s needs, they might have received something really big.  In other words, his message to me was that Beth Israel blew it with Ms. Clark.  The hospital was a hospital, after all, and they moved her around several times (obviously for various reasons that had to do with running a hospital and not a hotel).  In fact, the rumor was that when Beth Israel was forced to sell Beth Israel North (Ms. Clark’s original location in the hospital at their Upper East Side branch), Ms. Clark was approached about potentially contributing funds to help Beth Israel not have to sell the building.  And, she turned them down.

The point of this post, which is really a repetition of similar tidbits that I have written about over the past two years on this story, is that the print media has picked up on the lawsuit by Ms. Clark’s long lost great, great half nieces and nephews (I challenge everyone one of them to prove that they or their parents or their grandparents ever met Ms. Clark face to face).  And, the story is showing a very negative light on Beth Israel fundraising tactics and on fundraising/planned giving in general.

Here is an example of a Huffington Post story from yesterday: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/30/huguette-clark-hospital-donations-beth-israel_n_3359783.html  The title says it all:

Were Huguette Clark’s Donations To Beth Israel Part Of A Hospital Plot To Game The Elderly Heiress?

You can see where these stories are going.  It’s not right.  Yes, fundraisers strategize on how to best ask someone for money.  Yes, fundraisers have to sometimes be creative.  And, yes, sometimes lines are crossed.

But, in this story, I am screaming to the world – based on the information that I picked up as fundraiser at the institution in question – Ms. Clark was not “gamed” by Beth Israel Medical Center.  She obviously had some personal issues and for whatever reason decided to pay “rent” to live in a hospital.  Hospital rooms are expensive.  That was her choice.  And, she saw right through their fundraising attempts and gave them what she felt was appropriate: not a lot in scheme of things.  Out of a $300 million dollar estate (which could have been much larger), she left $1 million to the hospital.  That is like saying: thanks but no thanks.

And you know what, that was her choice!  What is lost in this story is that Ms. Clark decided, in the end, to leave most of her estate for other charitable endeavors: art museums and the like.

And you know what, her long lost family – who squandered their family wealth generations ago – are nothing but a group of greedy, good for nothing, descendants of decadent rich people from the turn of the century.  And, it shows.  They are attacking Ms. Clark’s will, and now the institution which actually took care of her, all in the name of grabbing her money and not letting it go to where she wanted.

Who knows when and if any funds from the Clark Estate will reach their intended destinations?  I truly hope that the Clark Estate and Beth Israel take tough stands against these law suits and destroy the family’s last cents on attorney fees.

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