Estate planning

Leaving a legacy to an organization


Special to the Miami Herald

For John Bussel, 2010 stands out among the 20 years he has spent motivating people to give money to non-profit organizations he champions as a volunteer.

That year he was named chairman of the Foundation of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. The country was in the midst of the Great Recession.

“It was not a good thing, obviously,” says Bussel, principal and regional director for Hewins Financial Advisors. “The dollars coming into the community on an annual basis from the Federation and campaigns across all the underlying agencies, schools, synagogues, took a hit.”

However, out of the recession came a catalyst to increase the focus on planned giving, he says.

“The crisis came along and really crystallized things, set things in motion.”

Although a planned gift is technically any gift to a non-profit provided for in a lifetime financial plan, the definition more often means the donor leaves money or assets to the charity upon his or her death.

While the organization may not receive the funds for many years, Bussel says, legacy giving that assures yearly revenue means that future generations will not have to grapple with funding gaps for important programs and services.

Bequests have long been a funding source for institutions from schools to hospitals and religious institutions, but locally the focus may be increasing.

Within the past two years, two new high-profile legacy programs, the Federation’s Create a Jewish Legacy and New World School of the Arts Legacy Society, have launched.

While both include the word “legacy” in their names, the impetus and approach of the two initiatives are very different examples of effective ways to secure bequests from potential donors.

Many organizations are so focused on annual giving, they don’t believe they have the time, resources or sometimes the confidence to be effective, says Jacob Solomon, Federation president and CEO. To remedy that, the organization established CJL, a community-wide initiative with its own logo and marketing campaign, which launched in October 2012.

Prior to the launch, the Federation commissioned a study, which revealed that previous generations who gave unrestricted planned dollars to Jewish organizations were dying out. Younger people wanted to support specific organizations or missions.

CJL’s 17 participating organizations, including Temple Beth Am, Miami Jewish Health Systems Foundation and the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, receive training and support to enable staff to more effectively solicit planned gifts from members and supporters.

In its first year, according to coordinator Ilana Saposnik, CJL received declarations of intent for nearly $12 million in legacy gifts from 147 local supporters.

The local CJL is based on an initiative begun in San Diego, and embraced by The Jewish Federations of North America, which encouraged other communities to replicate it by offering grants. Miami’s Federation applied for and won a launch grant, which included funds to pay for a local coordinator. Miami’s CJL had the advantage of learning from the experience of other communities that already had the initiative, including Atlanta.

However, in some ways Miami is unique. It has the highest number of foreign-born members of any Jewish community in North America, Solomon says.

“We have something like a third of the adults of our population are foreign born, so talking to someone who’s a relatively recent immigrant to Miami about a legacy gift is a little challenging,” Solomon says. “They’re busy making their lives and they might feel more rooted in Venezuela or New York.”

“What we’re trying to do is plant seeds for the future. For some people who are first-generation Miamians this isn’t going to work out, but by creating a culture of planned giving maybe it will be them in five or 10 years or maybe it will be their kids.”

By contrast, New World’s Legacy Society was started by one of its strongest supporters.

Lydia Harrison, with her husband Burton Harrison, who died earlier this year, had given time and money to New World School of the Arts since it opened 27 years ago. Harrison, a member the school’s Foundation board, says she got the idea of establishing the Legacy Society from fund-raising efforts she saw at the University of Miami. She was moved by her stage of life and a desire to strengthen financial support for New World.

“I have a lot of friends who are aging out so to speak,” she says. “A lot of them really do not have people they want to leave their money to.”

The Harrisons also had no children. She began approaching close friends, who, like her, were supporters of the arts. Soon she had the founding members of the Legacy Society.

“It’s very easy to talk to people when you yourself are involved,” Harrison says. “You’re not asking for something you’re not doing yourself.”

Undaunted by the prospect of asking for a legacy gift, Harrison is New World’s not-so-secret fund-raising weapon.

“I love to ask people for money,” she says. “My motto is ‘I thrive on rejection.’ ”

So far, says Rafael Maldonado-Lopez, New World development officer, the society has 10 members and has raised $2.8 million in signed pledges.

“It’s a buddy system and referral system,” she says. “You get other like-minded people to get involved.”

The system works, Maldonado says, because the relationships with the school are so personal. Harrison would agree.

She says her husband never wanted a memorial service, so when he died, she held a memorial jazz concert on Oct. 5 at New World to celebrate his life. Some 225 people attended, says Maldonado.

“I told everybody my husband had a (an insurance) policy for his going-away party,” she says. “I don’t have to take up a collection.”

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