Each “largest” gift comes with an element of surprise and awe.
The May 1 announcement of David L. and Rita E. Nelson leaving the largest gift in the history of the Community Foundation — more than $100 million — to their donor advised fund seems like a gift that could never be matched.
That’s the way people felt when Donald and Violet Himebaugh left $16 million to their permanent unrestricted fund with the Community Foundation in 2004, for the Foundation to forever use to meet ever-changing community needs, currently through the Bright Idea Fund.
And before that, when architect Frank C. Shattuck’s estate in 1999 left $7 million to benefit a list of favorite causes.
What those gifts – the largest-ever for the Foundation when they were given – have in common is that they were all given from an estate upon someone’s death.
It all started with Ruth M. Davis. She made the first substantial gift from a will to the Community Foundation – $500,000 to a permanent unrestricted fund in her name that also was to be used to address pressing community needs, forever .
Ruth was a lifelong Appleton resident. She graduated from Lawrence University and completed a career rare for women at the time, as an engineer at Western Condensing (now Foremost Farms USA).
She was involved in a traffic accident in 1987 that left her a quadriplegic. She was awarded a large insurance settlement, but was already in her early 80s. She never married and had no family to inherit what would remain after the cost of her care. Working with attorney Joe Bielinski of the Menn Law Firm in Appleton, Ruth arranged for a gift of $500,000 from her estate to the Community Foundation upon her death. Rather than direct the money to a particular nonprofit organization or charitable cause, she planned a gift that would create an unrestricted fund in her name and leave decisions on how to use the annual grant money to the Community Foundation Board of Directors.
“She remained alert and remarkably optimistic,” Joe Bielinski, her attorney, said at the time. “Ruth was unable to enjoy her assets because of her disability and wanted to benefit the community.”
When she died June 20, 1993, the bulk of her estate was transferred to the Ruth M. Davis Fund.
The initial $500,000 has been invested prudently as an endowment — with a modest amount made available for grants to nonprofit organizations without depleting the principal of the fund. Up to 5% of the assets could be awarded each year in grants (now 4.5%). Total grants through the 25 years add up to $630,000 awarded while the fund still has $502,000 in assets. That’s the magic of endowment — investing to ensure a fund maintains its ability to make grants forever.
For Ruth Davis’ fund, that means currently about $22,500 in grant money is pooled together each year with money from the Himebaugh fund and 17 other unrestricted funds and used for the Foundation’s annual Bright Idea Fund grants.
While the large gifts are awe-inspiring, what’s really impressive is the collective philanthropy of more than 1,500 charitable funds, each carrying out the charitable wishes of the donors who established them and last year awarding a total of $26.8 million in grants last fiscal year to hundreds of nonprofit organizations.