A Charity Did What Charities Do

No Smoking Guns courtesy of David King on Flickr
No Smoking Guns courtesy of David King on Flickr
Last week The New York Times exposed Beth Israel Medical Center’s fundraising operation as it became public through documents related to a will challenge by distant relatives of Huguette Clark, a wealthy woman who lived her last 20 years in the New York City nonprofit hospital. She died in 2011.

From the Times’ account, I see very little wrong and nothing egregious. New details may emerge and I’m analyzing what’s known today based on the linked article. (I’m much more interested in where the story ends.)

Ms. Clark was a major gift prospect, as she should be. She lived in the hospital for a long time and had her faculties.

Fundraising staff researched their prospect and the CEO was actively involved. All CEOs should be engaged in major gift fundraising. They wrote memos to each other and to the file.

It’s true: people inside charities routinely talk to each other about fundraising prospects and donors. They keep records in databases and paper files. They hold strategy meetings to manage relationships.

That’s what charities do.

It’s what they have to do to get gifts so their doors stay open. It is the way fundraising gets done in the charity business.

Surprisingly, the Times article lacks this context. There’s no commentary from a person with knowledge of fundraising practices to say, presumably, that there’s not much in this story that’s out of the ordinary.

What I didn’t like is the unprofessionalism of some notes and the unbridled exuberance that led a staffer to use seven exclamation marks to announce a gift of a painting. And there are snarky comments, too.

Those instances were poorly judged and thoughtless. Not illegal. Not unethical. Just thoughtless.

Never put in writing something you wouldn’t want the person you’re writing about to read. Keep your notes factual.

My greatest interest is the last paragraph of the Times’ article. Within 20 days of signing her first will, which did not include Beth Israel, the CEO met with Ms. Clark three times. Three weeks after the last of those visits she executed a new will with a $1 million bequest for the hospital. That’s the will under dispute.

Now we’re squarely in my territory, Planned Giving.

  • Did an attorney prepare the wills?
  • Did the same attorney prepare both?
  • Were they executed in compliance with New York law? (The first will is dubbed “sparse.”)
  • Were the attorneys recommended by the hospital?
  • Did hospital staff have meetings with the attorneys?
  • Who paid the attorneys?
  • How many people were in the three meetings with Ms. Clark?
  • What was said?
  • How did she react?
  • Did other staff meet her between the two wills?
  • What did they say and how many people were in those meetings?

Nearly everything leading up to the first will is business as usual, as far as we know.

For me, the end of the story begins the most interesting inquiry.

6 thoughts on “A Charity Did What Charities Do

  1. Your questions are to the propriety of her stay. Interesting. I’m focused more on the propriety of the fundraising, which I find unobjectionable. Thanks, John!

  2. My first thought on reading the piece is what did the “distant relatives” do by way of taking any interest in Mrs Clarke’s life and well-being up to and until her death? Inevitably the style of the article is borderline sensational and undoubtedly glosses over much. It emphasizes the fundraisers’ relationship building (that’s what fundraisers do!) and rightly neglects any in depth of Mrs Clarke’s medical situation. Can we assume that she received first rate medical attention? Would she have received better and been better off had she been discharged? Perhaps the courts will make this clearer.

  3. An arm’s length agreement is essential and family always comes first. I said that at a client just yesterday.

    The question whether to fight family is a tricky one. Even if you feel your charity has acted properly, the court of public opinion can turn negative, as we’re seeing here.

  4. You’ve got a different perspective, Toni. Your #1 is a good question. Others have questioned whether that could exist under today’s tightly controlled length of stay. For #2, I don’t see pressure, I see fundraising. Cheers!

  5. Bequests are an area of fundrsing that need very careful attention to process and proceedure.

    A charity must ensure that appropriate records are kept that are factual accounts of the relationship with the Charity.

    The charity must keep at arms length in the decision about a bequest. It has to be the persons decision, and there must be no influence brought to bear on the person making the bequest.

    The Will should be prepared by a solicitor and the Charity should have no involvement in the preparation of the Will. Most legal professionals would advise against leaving out the family and a charity should never encourage a person to make a will that does leave out the family, in my view.

    A good Charity should not stand against the family’s challenge in my view unless there is substantial evidence that the person had made a clear choice without influence from the Charity.

    A Charity should always be ethical.

  6. Toni L. Goldfarb • Tony, thanks for highlighting this controversial article. I’m sure others may disagree with me, but I definitely think this hospital was wrong on many fronts:
    1. Keeping any patient–especially a wealthy one–in hospital for 20 years, even though she paid for her care. Other people need the medical attention far more than this woman, particularly in a nonprofit hospital serving lower income patients.
    2. Continuing to pressure the woman and her relatives for donations, rather than focusing on the hospital’s philanthropy-related works which might inspire her to donate on her own volition.

    I truly believe the hospital’s fundraisers stepped way over the line of propriety and judgement in this case. Their behavior could even be interpreted as trying to keep a “golden goose” in captivity, to prevent family members and other charities from soliciting her funds.

    I could add many other criticisms of this fundraising operation, but I’m hoping others will contribute their own interpretations, pro and con.

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