Legacy Donors: Local Janitor Leaves $8 Million to Hospital, Library—and No One Knew

Vol. 13 No. 6

development eletter Vol13 No6 legacymoney

Everyone likes a rags-to-riches story, but one small community in Vermont was stunned to learn of the wealth Ronald Read, a gas station attendant and janitor, had amassed during his lifetime—and left to the local library and hospital. When he passed away last June, his attorney discovered stock certificates ultimately worth $8 million in Read’s safety deposit box, ready for dispersal between his kin and community.

While the story is sensational, it serves as a reminder to cater to all the “Ronald Reads” in school communities. You never know where your next legacy gift is coming from, and it could be from someone as seemingly humble as the janitor whose nephew attends your school.

The Story

Read was described as an “unassuming” man and the “quintessential Vermonter.” He was soft-spoken, with a great sense of humor and a wish for privacy, as his attorney Laurie Rowell told CNN.

Read was also frugal. He’d park further from Rowell’s office to avoid paying for the parking spot, and his jacket was held together with safety pins. According to Rowell, his breakfast was once paid for at Friendly’s because the person paying before him thought he was homeless, “based on what he looked like and how he dressed.”

He spent large amounts of time at both the library and the hospital, though neither of these institutions paid him any special attention. Gina Pattison, spokesperson for the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, told WCAX that Read often came into the hospital’s coffee shop for breakfast. “[Finding] that he’d left this money to the hospital was a great surprise,” Pattinson said.

Brooks Memorial Library’s Executive Director, Jerry Corbone, agreed. No one at the library had formed a particular relationship with Read, but apparently he’d been “perusing the stacks” and checking out books for the past six or seven years without anyone taking notice.

Read’s bequest, Corbone told the Brattleboro Reformer, will be “transformative,” adding that while Read, “did not have a formal education … [Read] was very smart and he realized the impact that an institution like a library has on an individual."

Cultivating Your “Ronald Reads”

Both the library and the hospital were floored by Read’s posthumous generosity. They each won their bequests by following their respective missions in providing services to the community—missions that Read respected and supported both in life and in death.

But libraries and hospitals aren't the only community institutions to receive such generosity, nor is Ronald Read the only donor who planned to give large sums of his fortune to nonprofits. In its June 2014 edition, Giving USA reported that bequest donations rose by 8.7% in 2013 to an estimated total of $27.7 billion given to various nonprofits.

It is possible to cultivate the anonymous “Ronald Reads” in your community before you’re handed an estate check worth millions—but it requires time, effort, and the building of relationships with your entire school community.

  • Stay true to your mission. Donors respect what an institution stands for. They place their trust (and money) in institutions which prove they “walk the walk” when it comes to following a mission. Doing your part to keep your school mission-focused and student-centric is the first (and arguably most important) way to attract mystery legacy donors like Ronald Read.
  • Take no donor for granted. Sure, it’s tempting to focus only on a few traditionally wealthy donors, but as Read’s legacy shows, they’re not the only donors who can transform the landscape of your school. Build relationships with everyone, from those who donate what they can right now to those who can afford to fund multi-million dollar projects tomorrow. In the end, you’ll more than recoup your investment of time and trust.
  • Remain transparent throughout the donation process. A potential legacy donor might worry over how the money will be spent once they’re no longer in a position to dictate where the funds should be specifically allocated. If your school can consistently demonstrate how donations are used in other planned giving situations, a legacy donor will be reassured that procedures will be no different once they’re gone.
  • Strive to become fiscally stable. For legacy donors, they want to know that their financial contribution will support and strengthen a school that will be around for years to come. Their money isn’t a lifeboat for a sinking school; their money is fertilizer to grow an already-flourishing garden. If there are any doubts that your school will stand the test of time, the number of people writing your school into their wills will diminish rapidly.

How would you honor an unexpected legacy donor? Share your advice with other Development Directors in the comment section below, or on Twitter!

Additional ISM resources:
ISM Monthly Update for Development Directors Vol. 12 No. 3 Donor Recognition: Appealing and Gratifying the Donor

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 32 No. 10 Seven Gift Planing Tips for a Small Development Office

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