On Writing a History of Charitable Gift Planning

On Writing a History of Charitable Gift Planning

Article posted in Values-Based on 31 March 2015| comments
audience: National Publication, Ron Brown | last updated: 31 March 2015


The benefits of connecting with gift planners across time include a richer sense of self and mission.  Read on to learn why Gift Planning History.org was created and what it is about.

by Ronald A. Brown

Please accept my apologies.  It is long past time to pause and reflect on what this series of essays is about.  No one else is writing anything like this; I owe readers an explanation.

In September 2013 I launched a website entitled Gift Planning History (www.giftplanninghistory.org) where I publish original research. 

How did this project come about?  Like many other people do, I threw myself into volunteer service following a personal tragedy, the death of my longtime spouse from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) in 1999.  Giving back to others allowed me to manage my own feelings, and remains a constant source of joy.

During my recovery I suggested to Tanya Howe Johnson, President of the National Committee on Planned Giving (NCPG; now the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning) that someone should write the history of NCPG.  A few weeks later, not to my surprise, Tanya said that writer should be me.  Of course I agreed immediately.

My voluntary research project began in the year 2000.  This seemed a worthwhile service on behalf of friends and colleagues raising money for American charities.  How hard could it be to record the birth of a nonprofit association I had served as a board member and as an enthusiastic participant for so many years?

I felt totally prepared.  My career includes serving as director of gift planning at Princeton University, United Way of America, the National Wildlife Federation, and now Fordham University.  I wrote two award-winning narratives for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C.  As a student at Princeton and the University of Chicago I was intensely interested in the history of ideas, and I had long dreamed of being a writer.   

As I began my research it seemed that everyone working in the field knew (or thought they knew) that charitable gift planning began with the Tax Reform Act of 1969.  My first surprise came through reading the Congressional Record for 1969.  Members of the House intended to reform abuses of charitable trusts that had been well-known for decades (!).  Charities testified at Senate hearings about life-income gift programs going back more than 100 years (!!).

The history of NCPG would have to wait until I learned more about our professional roots.  More than 12 years went by.  Gradually I realized that the history of charitable remainder trusts and gift annuities is not like a string of electric lights, each depending upon the one before.  There are discontinuities; traditions are forgotten, discarded, adapted.  Rather than envisioning an unbroken process of refinements in the techniques of gift planning, it is more useful to think of people in each era using the tools available to realize their objectives. 

The rewards of history include developing the capacity to shine one’s own searchlight on past experience.  By reading histories in many related fields I learned quite a bit about the roots of modern gifts, which stretch back through ancient Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and Fez.  I began to imagine the shape of a narrative involving people and events in the history of life-income gifts to charity that would give readers an opportunity to see some of the ways our lives as gift planners can be enriched through understanding our connections with the experiences of others.  

My first essay for Gift Planning History.org had to be about the founding of the National Committee on Planned Giving.  I decided to emphasize dramatic conflicts over national control of professional training and certification, promoting charitable remainder trusts as tax shelters and investment vehicles, finder’s fees, and events resulting in the Model Standards of Practice for the Charitable Gift Planner.  My essay draws upon some of the oral history interviews I conducted with 16 early leaders.  (I had all the interviews transcribed and deposited them with NCPG/PPP.)

With that longstanding promise met, I chose as my next topic the birth of modern American gift annuities in the 19th century.  Everyone expects biographers to tell the story of the beginning of a life: where and when was a person born, what experiences shaped their values?  Just so with historians: if life income gifts to charity were not created by the Tax Reform Act of 1969, when does the story begin?  The starting point seemed clear enough: everyone knew (or thought they knew) that the American Bible Society had issued the first modern gift annuity in 1843.[1]  Once again, this commonly accepted fact of history proved not to be true.

Modern annuities began earlier than 1843.  The birth of American gift annuities turned out to be a helluva story of patriotism, religious controversy, political logrolling, and persistent effort.  In 1831, after 18 months of inspired planning by Benjamin Silliman, Yale College issued an annuity to the artist John Trumbull in exchange for his best paintings of the American Revolution. 

The story of the annuity behind the country’s first college art gallery, located in the very heart of Yale’s Old Campus, was publicized widely.  Trumbull even reprinted the texts of his Annuity Bond and Indenture contracts in his Autobiography in 1841.[2]  Thanks to the ingenious New York attorney Peter Augustus Jay, who drafted Trumbull’s contracts with Yale and served as a leading gift planning volunteer for the Bible Society, American charities issued Annuity Bonds for the next 100 years. 

My next big surprise was embarrassing to me personally.  I guess I sort of knew back then that the American Council on Gift Annuities (ACGA) was founded in 1927.  Years after my research began, and not long before joining the ACGA board, at the New York Public Library I found rare microfilm copies of the first few reports from the Conferences on Annuities.  Until that time, roughly 2005, I was totally unaware that ACGA began as a national reform movement, in response to a great wave of very productive but extremely risky gift annuity programs in the 1920s.[3]

I asked myself what behavior by donors and charities needed to be reformed.  The answers were eye-opening.  The Conference on Annuities on April 29, 1927 brought the most fundamental changes imaginable to the world of charitable gift planning.  Before George Huggins presented his conference paper entitled “Actuarial Basis of Rates,” most charities set their annuity rates by a “decimal method”: they divided an annuitant’s age by ten, and paid an 80-year-old 8%, a 60-year-old 6%, etc.  Easy, but short-sighted.  There were many reports of donors negotiating even higher payment rates among charities willing to compete for comparison shoppers.  And by promoting gift annuities as “annuity bonds,” charities were encouraging donors to think of such gifts as personal investments offering a high return. 

I have a deep appreciation for the work of George A. Huggins, Gilbert Darlington, and a few other thoughtful leaders who professionalized U.S. fund raising by introducing the methods of actuarial science.  For the first time, charities, donors, attorneys, investment managers, legislators, and regulators had a common set of ideas and methods by which to establish responsible gift annuity payment rates, calculate tax implications, maintain adequate reserve funds, conduct research, and build a robust public policy framework to protect annuitants as well as charities.  The actuarial revolution in gift planning is my current topic.

People often ask me about the money behind this research.  Gift Planning History.org is totally self-funded.  It is my gift to people interested in the subject.  There is no charge for downloading or re-distributing my research, though it is copyrighted under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.[4]  There are no advertisements or sponsors.  Much to the dismay of my wife, I have no intention of capitalizing on my research.  (But I will take the call if someone wants to make a major motion picture on the history of charitable gift planning.) 

This is a good place to recognize some of the people who have provided very welcome encouragement along the way, most notably Professor Stanley N. Katz, Conrad Teitell, Jonathan Tidd, Robert F. Sharpe, Jr., David Clough, Peter Doyle, Andre Donikian, Tanya Pohrt (Yale Art Museum), Lee Hoffman and his late brother Marc.  I’ve learned much of what I know about gift annuities from Frank Minton, and have benefitted from the professional expertise and the friendship of William D. Zabel and Winton Smith.  My website designer is Amy Hepler (http://amyhepler.com/).  I thank the staff of the extraordinary Princeton University Library, and recognize The Writers Room in New York City, which provides a quiet sanctuary.  My wife Margaret Cannella has endured innumerable discussions about gift planning and has provided invaluable feedback.  Most of all I thank the 2,347 subscribers to Gift Planning History.org who are registered as of March 30, 2015.

Sometime in 2016 I will collect my essays into a book.  The writing will continue to be freely available online.  If you have any questions or suggestions for improvement, please write to me at rbrown.pghistory@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing from you.

[1] See for example “The First Gift Annuity . . . and Many More: An Interview with J. Milton Bell,” Planned Giving Today (February, 1992: Volume III, Number 2).

[2] My colleague Charles Gordy first told me about this gift annuity.  Professor Silliman’s handwritten account of planning Trumbull’s gift is held in the archives of Yale University.  

[3] The American Council on Gift Annuities let me arrange and pay for scanning their conference reports from 1927-2012.  The reports are now available at no charge on the ACGA website at http://www.acga-web.org/resources-top/surveys-reports-conference-papers-and-brochures.

[4] You are free to quote from and redistribute my work as long as you give me credit as the author.  See the Creative Commons website for more information.


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