Too-Good-To-Be-True Gifts

Dear Kim:

The staff of my small organization did cartwheels when we received a phone call from Mr. Hedge-fund-manager’s secretary announcing that she was sending his $30,000 donation, to be kept anonymous. Our financial forecast for the fiscal year was promptly updated; new program spending decisions were made. Imagine our dismay when we got a call three weeks later saying, “Oops. We meant to give that check to another organization. Have you cashed it yet?”

What’s the protocol (and etiquette) for something like this? We figure we’ll try to convince him that our work is worthy, but of course we’ll have to give it back if he urges us to do so. Is it appropriate to inform him that now we’ll have to snatch food out of the mouths of children in order to give it back? And that this is really demoralizing for staff?

Sincerely,

Canceling the Cartwheels

Dear Cancelled Cartwheel:

What a terrible story! I don’t know what you are obligated to do legally, and I would find out. I also think there is something very fishy about this story (perhaps I am suspicious of hedge funds). Why would a person in the investment business give a donation by check instead of the much more tax advantaged appreciated stock? How would someone writing a check for that amount of money confuse you with another charity and not notice for three weeks? How does this person expect you to maintain his anonymity when you are so mad at him?

To say nothing of the sheer crass insensitivity of calling and just asking for it back with no words like, “I’d like to give something to help out. I can imagine this was a blow. I am so terribly embarrassed….”

But don’t stoop to begging for the money. You don’t want money from someone who doesn’t want you to have it. This gift would not be renewed in any case. This is a chance to go to a few of your closest donors, tell them what happened and tell them you don’t want to have to cancel the new programs you were starting with this money. Raise it from people who like you, who are way more likely to give again. Count your blessings that it wasn’t a bigger gift.

The overall lesson here is that things that seem too good to be true usually are.

–Kim Klein