Gift Agreements & Trust

by Marcy Heim on August 14, 2019


Can you be trusted? This is about TRUST. Earning your donor’s trust and knowing you have set this up to honor that trust is what your agreements do.

Here’s my story.

You’re meeting with your new leader – the Dean, CEO, Executive Director, or Manager. Will she “get” development at all? Will she be a partner in building artful relationships? Will she simply want to know, “what big gifts came in this week” and have little interest in being involved with relationship-building?

It’s a stressful time. We want to be optimistic about the new leadership partnership. But we are understandably anxious to know how this leader will operate in the giving arena.

During my 23 years of incredible major gift work at the University of Wisconsin, I was privileged to work with amazing faculty and leaders — most still cherished friends today. There was one Dean, however, that had a very different understanding. Shortly after she began, she asked me how many endowed funds we had and if I could provide the memorandums of agreement for the funds. I was delighted! Certainly she wanted to get familiar with the funds – especially those with living donors so we could visit, thank and begin a relationship.  Wonderful!

Wrong. I was SO wrong.

She wanted first the agreements with NO living donors. Her goal?  Loopholes. Yes, loopholes in my agreements that would allow her to spend the money HER way.

Much to my horror, she invaded funds to use the earnings for her own uses while I sat by helpless to do anything about it.  Sure, I shared my concerns with higher-ups, but the agreement was what mattered. Fast forward – the dean was not renewed, and the next Dean was terrific. The fund’s earnings were again used correctly and all was well, right?  Honestly, the trust I felt I had a hand in breaking has haunted me forever.  My donors trusted me.

quote gift documentation

This was an experience that would forever change how I approached documenting the wishes of a donor…..and for that fact, how I looked at every legal document – personal or professional.  It got to be a bit of a joke at the UW Foundation – how long Marcy’s letters of agreement were.  You bet they were! And they were crystal clear.

Here’s Marcy’s “Never Forget List” you need when completing any sort of agreement, memorandum, contract or other legal documentation in work and life.

Written agreements

1. Agreements must be written.

Conversations have no legal strength. They told me “this or that” rarely is heard. What did the legal agreement say? If you die without a will, it doesn’t matter what you told the kids. If you go into a coma without a medical directive, you have no say, nor do others, as to what happens next.

If you don’t record clear meeting minutes, you have no record of what was discussed or decided.

2. Agreements must clearly state the organization or institution.

Certainly the legal name of your organization or institution is important, but the EIN number (Employer Identification Number – Tax number free online) solidly identifies YOU.  If you say “the Catholic school in MyTown” that could mean scores of potential places – and I have seen an estate gift divided up to places we know the donor never intended. Name, ID, address. Exactly who are the players in the agreement.

3. Agreements must be crystal clear on the use.

Yes, many agreements set up “for all time” situations so we may be told to write them “flexibly” as to not tie the hands of future administration or force us into costly legal situations so that we can “use” the money or implement the directive.  They also need to honorably speak for the donor, the child, you.  Using examples of your donor’s vision for how this money would or would NOT be used helps bring clarity. It is helpful to include your donor’s intentions in making the gift, “In setting up this fund, the donors wish to honor the life of Joe Smith, Betty’s father, and his connection to the FFA for more than 40 years.”

4. The agreement needs to address, ‘What if?”

Time changes everything. What if we no longer have this department, program, whatever?  You must ask and you must have a documented answer. You can use standard language, “In the event X ceases to exist, the organization will use the funds for the closest purpose as the original intent as possible.” Better…set up someone – family or friend – to consult. Or, list examples of what broader uses would look like for the donor.  And, include things the donor would roll over in their grave to see happen with their money.

5. The agreement needs to be as long as the agreement needs to be.

I have a reputation for writing long agreements.  Why? Because I learned the hard way — a dead donor has no voice except in my agreements. And working through these actually is a way of serving your donor – helping them get clear on what they want to do.  I have actually increased the gift size working through the agreement as a donor better understands what dollars are really needed to accomplish some task. Additionally, if a donor wants 15 interviews and an essay contest to award a scholarship, writing this out is a great way to educate on how this may not be practical to implement FOR ALL TIME…when that staff member who agreed to do it is long gone.

This also pertains to meeting minutes for Boards.  Make an Executive Summary if your board wants shorter minutes, but document who said what.

6. The agreement legally must be kept for all time. 

How many of us stay at a place 23 years? I saw funds implemented, donors pass and how the communications with new leadership and staff played out. Question #1, ‘Is there an agreement on how this money should be used?” If you want a specific letter included in the agreement, scan it and insert it into the body of the agreement.  Trust me…attachments and exhibits get lost.  After over 20 years at the UW, it was clear that agreements are kept, scanned and documented.  Letters, contact screens, call reports can well be deleted to make room for more.

Likewise for meeting minutes – by law your Board meeting minutes must be kept for all time.  The level of detail and clarity can be invaluable and minutes can even provide insight into how the group was thinking as they made a decision.  Trust me – no one remembers – or remembers accurately.

This is about TRUST. Earning your donor’s trust and knowing you have set this up to honor that trust is what your agreements do.  Sadly, your word means nothing unless it is documented in your agreement. It hurts to see misuse and have no power to correct it.  It is a forever JOY to see your donors and their families forever delighted with the results of their generosity!

You have the power to create and honor trust.  I totally trust you to make it happen and I appreciate your noble contributions to lifting others up through their giving!

Invest in JOY®


Marcy Heim is a trusted authority in the development profession and helps organizations and educational institutions boost their major gift programs through artful, long-term relationship building that dramatically increases fundraising success while promoting increased staff job satisfaction. To receive a free chapter from Marcy’s book, Empower Your Board to Serve as Effective Development Ambassadors, click here.

Questions:  Contact KK Konicek at

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