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Giving While Living

By Kate Golden on March 14, 2007No Comment

Tyler Green makes a strong argument for giving now in his recent report on donor intent in Fortune Magazine.  Citing high-profile cases in which a recipient’s use of donor funds has been contested years after the gift was made – including the Robertson family’s very public battle with Princeton University – Green argues that philanthropists with a clear mission for their money ought to give it away while they are alive, or stipulate a timeline for its expenditure.  Warren Buffett, for example, has stated that his donated Berkshire Hathaway shares must be spent within ten years of his estate closing.

Many have emulated (or tried to emulate) Buffett’s wildly successful approach to investments.  His approach to philanthropy may also attract imitators.  His record-breaking generosity vaulted him even more firmly into the public eye when it was announced in June, and as the terms of his gift dictate, the Gates Foundation must begin spending his money within the next two years – enabling Buffett to witness (and keep tabs on) some of the results of his donation.

Buffett told Carol Loomis, also of Fortune Magazine, "I know what I want to do, and it makes sense to get going."  For those with similar fortitude, donating a large gift while still alive can be an appealing option.  But for those who tend to change their minds, a bequest may still be the way to go – money given to a charity is irrevocable and cannot be taken back.

Determining donor intent can be a timely, costly process.  And the courts do not always rule in favor of the donor.  As the Barnes Foundation moves its paintings to downtown Philadelphia – in what many believe to be a contradiction of Albert Barnes’ vision for his art collection – Buffett’s approach to philanthropy may gain additional emulators.

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