Big gifts can sink ships.
Back in 1832 or therebouts, Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, died and left his body to science. Sort of. His body, he stipulated, was to be dissected with the skeleton in tact and his head mummified. Then he was to be stuffed with hay (and lavender) dressed in his own black suit, seated in a wooden chair, and preserved as an "auto-icon" to his philosophies (he was quite ahead of his time - supporting animal rights, gay rights and prisoner rights) and occasionally wheeled out to join the regents of University College London. Part of his bequest.
Right. And he's still there. The mummified head thing didn't work out so well, so he has a wax head, but it's still him.
Bequests can be weird and large gifts from the living can be just as difficult to navigate. But they can also be incredible change-makers, game-changers, and mission-magnifying turning points for organizations, if good care is taken by leaders and the board.
The most important point to remember: You can refuse gifts. Any gift that is going to end up being detrimental to the long-term health of your organization should be refused. Estate gifts that are refused are returned to the estate and distributed according to the terms of the will. Declining gifts from living folks is a little more challenging because, well, they are there and offendable. So you will need to have your ducks in a row and your language carefully chosen.
Since most of us are always looking for resources, why would we ever turn down a gift? Here some reasons:
The strings are just too stringy. The donor wants you to move off your mission and tackle some issue not in your wheelhouse. The donor is asking you to engage in some activity that is a bit dodgy and risks your reputation. The donor wants you to hire, fire, partner with, break ties with someone, something, some place. A colleague of mine tells the story of an organization receiving the promise of a significant (really significant) gift if the entire board resigned. They said "no, thank you".
The gift is too small. The donor is all cranked up about a project that is within your mission but the promised funds are not enough to complete the project. Can your operating budget support this dream project once the original gift is used up? If not, be very careful. Half-finished or half-baked projects don't do anybody any good and make you look like you can't run things well. (But you might be able to leverage the original gift into other funding - so say no slowly.)
The gift is too big. Huge fluctuations in operating budgets can truly send your organization into a spiral, downward. A large gift that is used for increasing staff, moving to better facilities, expanding programs seems like a god-send when it's happening, but is your donor going to continue to give at that level to sustain those improvements? What happens when they turn their attention elsewhere? Lay-off staff? Cut programs? No one is going to blame that donor. That'll be on you. If some of the gift can be used to beef up your fundraising program so that when the exceptional gift runs out, you've filled the gap, then that's a different story.
The gift isn't in the best interest of the donor. This is tricky, but we do owe our friends, our donors, respect and consideration. I once had an older gentleman come into my office a week after his wife died, wanting to make a large gift to fund some children's programming. I was worried about him and it seemed like a reaction to his grief rather than a well-thought out plan. We talked about possibilities, programs that needed funding, and then I asked him how his children felt about this gift. And he thought maybe he should talk with them. Yes. We did get that gift, not right then, and honestly, not as large as he had originally mentioned, but I felt way more confident in moving forward. With our older friends, or folks in great life changes, we do well to consider how we would hope someone would care for us, with all our good intentions.
It's the wrong donor. Nonprofits deal with political implications all the time, and many, many of our donors give with a variety of motives, some selfless, some not so much. The marketing value of contributing significantly to particular nonprofits can mean a lot, to corporate branding efforts and also to personal branding efforts. That's not a bad thing, at all, so long as the corporation or person doesn't stand for something antithetical to your organization. Each organization has to figure out what you will and won't associate with in the name of securing funds.
And you probably have other reasons that a gift should be turned down, but this is food for thought. The best way to make certain you don't stumble is to have a well-documented, carefully constructed, board-approved gift acceptance policy. Having reasons for saying "yes!" or "no, thank you" in writing can be immeasurably helpful when you're faced with a challenging situation.
You never know when a board member is going to leave you a million dollars with the condition that you have him/her stuffed and rolled out for every meeting. "Present, but abstained from voting."