College Planned Giving and Bequest Programs in the 1930s


Early in the 1920s Mr. J. DuPratt White ‘1890, a trustee of Cornell University, predicted that “in the years to come” Cornell “would receive more money by bequest than from all other sources combined.”

Acting on this insight, Neal Dow Becker ‘1905, a New York lawyer and industrialist, led a groundbreaking bequest program at Cornell University from 1924-1934. Cornell’s program involved nearly 1,000 attorneys and trust officers who encouraged alumni to make gifts in their wills, life insurance policies, trusts, and annuities. Cornell received more than $6 million in planned gifts between 1925-1937 and was aware of another $5-6 million in intended bequests. In the Depression year of 1934 the alumni fund raised $70,000 from about 5,000 gifts, and a bequest of $250,000 was received from the estate of C. Sidney Shepard.

Its bequest slogan was: “Cornell: Greater Still, By Your Will” but the university lumped life income trusts under the umbrella of bequests.  A presentation in 1931 entitled “The Cornell University Bequest Program” noted its encouragement of “turning over funds to the University during the lifetime of the donor, subject to life interest, and this has actually been done in many instances.” For example, in 1934 Cornell received $500,000 from a trust funded in 1925 by Henry H. Westinghouse ‘1875 “from which he received the income during his lifetime.” Life income trust beneficiaries received payments averaging about 5.5%.

Galen Stone Tower at Wellesley College
Galen Stone Tower at Wellesley College

Many colleges followed Cornell’s example. Women’s colleges at Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley began large-scale bequest programs in 1932 through the Alumnae Committee of Seven Colleges.  These colleges grew their endowments by significant amounts over the years and gained a strategic advantage against other colleges, including other women’s colleges, who had not begun soliciting estate gifts so early.

The Association of American Colleges (AAC) sponsored a Joint Conference of Colleges, Trust Institutions, Life Insurance and the Bar in Philadelphia on April 24, 1934, attended by more than 300 people. Speakers encouraged gifts through bequests, annuities, life income trusts, and life insurance. William Mather Lewis, President of Lafayette College, opened the conference by saying that “Nothing the Association has done seems so full of promise of financial aid to American colleges” as planned giving.

AAC regularly highlighted successful college planned giving programs. In December 1934 The Bulletin of AAC listed 38 colleges that include bequest forms in their catalogs or other publications.

R-Plan One of the earliest comprehensive gift planning programs began in 1937 when Stanford University started its long-running R-Plan (named for its founder, State Senator Louis H. Roseberry), including a Cardinal-colored reference binder for donors and professional advisors interested in charitable gift planning.

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