Preface: On Writing a History of Charitable Gift Planning

Gift planning has a history that can be useful in many ways. You may be interested in this book if you are a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization or a donor, attorney, investment advisor, actuary, financial planner, regulator, or student of American history.

In 2013, I launched a website entitled GiftPlanningHistory.org, in which I published essays that became the basis for this book. There are no other general histories of charitable gift planning, as far as I can tell. How did this book come about?

Like many people do, I threw myself into volunteer service following a personal tragedy, the death of my wife Lois in 1999. I suggested to Tanya Howe Johnson, then president of the National Committee on Planned Giving (NCPG; now the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners) that someone should write the history of the committee. A few weeks later, not to my surprise, Tanya said that writer should be me. I agreed immediately.

My volunteer research began in the year 2000. This seemed a worthwhile service on behalf of friends and colleagues raising money for American nonprofit organizations. How hard could it be to document the twenty-year history of a national association for which I had served as a board member and an enthusiastic participant?

My experience led me to believe that I could tell the stories well. I practiced gift planning at three universities (Princeton, Columbia, and Fordham), United Way of America, and the National Wildlife Federation. For eight years, I was a board member, research-committee chair, and a member of the rates committee for the American Council on Gift Annuities (ACGA). I served as the president of the Gift Planning Council of New Jersey and as a board member of the Planned Giving Group of Greater New York. I was a member of the CANARAS planned giving group from 2000 to 2017.

I’ve worked as a professional historian and as a writer. I served with the Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC; I received two Navy Achievement Medals for historical narratives and wrote similar histories for use by the Naval War College. As a student at Princeton and the University of Chicago, I studied the history of ideas and edited the newsletter of the Oriental Institute. I had long dreamed of writing full time.

When I began, 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.  This limited view of the history of gift planning persists. On the website for the National Association for Charitable Gift Planners, a page entitled “Our Story” begins:

Born with our profession. In 1969, Congress passed the Tax Reform Act, changing the way Americans could make charitable contributions. This was the major impetus for the creation of the field of planned giving. During the 1970s, the planned giving profession was in its infancy, but by the end of the decade many organizations were beginning to see the field’s potential.

My first surprise came in reading the Congressional Record for 1969. Members of the House intended to reform self-dealing abuses of charitable trusts that had been well-known for decades. Nonprofit organizations testified in the Senate about gift annuity programs going back more than one hundred years.

The history of NCPG would have to wait until I learned more about the roots of gift planning. I had a big day job and was raising a family, so I did research early in the morning and on weekends. Year after year flew by.

Gradually, I realized that the history of gift annuities and charitable trusts is not like a string of electric lights, each depending upon the continuing glow of all the ones before. There are discontinuities; traditions are forgotten, discarded, adapted. Rather than envisioning an unbroken process of progressive refinements in the techniques of gift planning, I found that it is more useful to think of people in each era using the tools available to realize their objectives.

There is much to enjoy and to learn in the adventures of gift planners long before the Tax Reform Act of 1969. The process resulting in a gift annuity contract in 1831 is complex and interesting. I aspired to show the meaning of these events for people engaged in similar processes today.

My first essay for GiftPlanningHistory.org had to be about the early years of the National Committee on Planned Giving. A simple chronology would not capture the drama. I needed to show why things happened as they did. I emphasized certain conflicts over control of professional training and certification; how a number of for-profit professionals began promoting charitable remainder trusts as tax shelters and investment vehicles; how a few professionals asked nonprofit organizations to pay finders’ fees for the delivery of gifts; and related events that resulted in the code of ethics entitled Model Standards of Practice for the Charitable Gift Planner.  (My essay entitled “The First Ethical Standards for Gift Planners: A Fledgling National Association Earns its Wings” can be found at www.giftplanninghistory.org)

With that promise met, I chose to write the history of American gift annuities. 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? It is just so with historians. The starting point seemed clear enough when I began. Everyone knew (or thought they knew) that the American Bible Society had issued the first gift annuity in 1843. Again, a commonly accepted fact of history proved not to be so.

The birth of gift annuities turned out to be a story of patriotism, religious controversy, political logrolling, and persistence. In 1831, Yale issued an annuity to the artist John Trumbull in exchange for his best paintings of the American Revolution. A planned gift financed the country’s first college art gallery, and preserved the best visual records of the men, women, and events of our struggle for independence.

My next big surprise came in 2007. I had read that the ACGA was founded in 1927. Just before I became chair of its Research Committee, I found microfilm copies of the first few reports from the Conferences on Gift Annuities in the archives of the New York Public Library. I was stunned to discover that ACGA began as a national reform movement in response to a wave of extremely risky nonprofit gift annuity programs in the 1920s.

What behavior by gift annuity donors and nonprofits in the 1920s needed to be reformed? The answers to that question led to the recognition of an actuarial revolution in American fundraising.