Planned Ghouling: The Dark Side

Print Share on LinkedIn More

After many years in nonprofits and foundations, I thought I knew almost every aspect of how modern fundraising works. That was before September when I found out that my favorite aunt, Great Aunt Alma, was seduced by a handsome, slick-talking development officer from Mammon University.

Let me be clear: it’s not that I stood to inherit. Too much water had passed under the bridge between my easy-livin’ mother and her Aunt Alma. In Aunt Alma’s opinion, there were too many men I called “Uncle,” too many apartments and cities we lived in and were run out of, and, in general, too many “situations” Mom fell victim to for Alma to ever trust that money left to me would not end up in Mom’s chronically empty pockets. Still, Alma and I liked each other and stayed in close touch.

In fact, toward the end we all assumed her estate would go to my

21-year-old cousin Althea, who was orphaned two years ago when Mari Jo, Aunt Alma’s only child and, Mari Jo’s husband Cliff were killed in a car crash.

Aunt Alma loved Althea best—not only because she was her grandchild by blood, but because she was a shy and brainy girl much like Alma herself had been. Great Aunt Alma had graduated from the University of Iowa during the Depression. She was the first in her family to seek higher education and was passionate about its value…in fact, she spent hours fruitlessly lecturing me on it.

In university, Alma Gibson graduated in one of the few fields open to women in the1930s—journalism. There, she began her life long habit of keeping a daily journal.

This was the extent of her use of her journalistic training. Alma married her husband Harold in her mid-twenties and became a stay-at-home wife. Harold was a self-made and very successful developer—they had a loving marriage that was built on their complementary personality differences. When Harold died in early 1989, Alma seemed to lose heart and withdrew a little more into her beautiful home—surrounded by her books and records.

That last week at the hospice in Florida, Aunt Alma had Althea and me read to her from her diaries and journals going back 60 years. It was through Alma’s daily journal that Althea and I pieced together the strange 15 year seduction (planned giving) campaign I relate here in selected excerpts.

September 5, 1989: Sylvester Smyth from Mammon University called, says he’s coming to Florida for some meetings in November and would like to visit about some projects at the University. Do I know him? Do I know anyone at Mammon? Tuna plate at Sea Breeze.

November 10, 1989: Sylvester Smyth spent two hours here, but seems to have an unusual interest in me. Seems fascinated by my “pioneering nature” in attending Iowa. How flattering after all this time. He said he had met Harold, who had once had contact with the college, but he didn’t say how—Harold never mentioned it. For some reason he also knew about Harold’s boat.

November 14, 1989: Sylvester sent a nice note and a copy of the Robert Fulghum book he had told me about. A thoughtful gift—but what does he want? I asked Althea to look him up on the Web. He’s in the Development department. He asked for pictures of Harold for a special University project—vague, but charming.

February 4, 1990: Mammon University Foundation newsletter arrives, with amazing profile of Harold and many photos. Apparently Harold was involved in some charitable event on a boat. Nice to see, but did Harold know that? Was there a secret life? Still, it’s nice to see him featured like this.

May 22, 1990: Sylvester called, will be in Pensacola in a month. Asked if I needed anything. Somehow found two original unused Derbyshire moleskin journals—will be like the old days! It’s strange to have a new friend after all this time. He says I remind him of his mother, whose dream was to attend university. Sad. He told me about Mammon’s commitment to women being educated and staking their place in the world.

July 9, 1992: Seward Bay, Alaska. Mari Jo, Cliff, and Althea on day trip from cruise to hike on glacier. Must finish my “legacy goals” statement for Sylvester before Monday.

January 30, 1995: Sylvester will be here tomorrow. Have list of household tasks. I’m in Mammon University Foundation Annual Report. The picture Syl took makes me look quite elegant! Good thing I still have one intact twin set—the lavender that Harold bought to match my amethyst broach. Reservation at Barracuda’s Bar & Grill. Salmon again!

April 25, 1995: At cardiac unit again. Coumadin may be increased. Dr. looked at me funny when I mentioned salmon regimen Sylvester got me started on. Odd conversation with Sylvester about Harold and what Harold might have thought about legacy.

October 12, 1996: Report arrives on first Gibson Journalism Fellowships—my first big legacy step, Syl says.

November 29, 1996: Dreary day. Called Syl at Mammon, but they said he was traveling on college business. What else does he do there? Spend time with other people like me?

May 1, 1997: Argument with Syl—been here too much lately. Keeps bringing up naming “opportunity” for Mammon Chemistry Building as my next legacy step, and acts as if Harold or I were alumni.

June 15, 1997: Long car trip with Syl to Mobile Bay in Alabama—a beautiful day! Just a great break, a sunny coast and then spicy shrimp and wine—nothing about the college. I think he must have sensed my discomfort last time. We ended up talking a lot about the growing number of women who have nationally syndicated columns. Too bad it’s happening in the context of such outrageous monopolies. It constrains the effect.

September 15, 1997: Did it—endowed the journalism fellowship program for women. I guess my name will live on! I should tell Mari Jo and Cliff. Mustn’t forget. More leg pain.

January 27, 1999: Took a taxi to Walgreen’s to get my prescriptions, but Syl had already picked them up. Must have forgotten that I had asked him to do that. Lobster roll and greens from Coastal Bistro.

April 4, 2000: Syl and I go over all my investments—I hate all this paperwork that Harold was so good at. Syl is so organized, and says there are some simple ways to move some accounts and different things to reduce the paper. More talk about wills, legacy, and what it takes these days to provide for family. Did some new-fangled thing with the house and a trust or something. Syl knows. Grilled salmon.

April 6, 2001: Night in the hospital. My leg trouble and heart are related, as I thought. Syl comes back on short notice—hate to impose, but he seems happy to do it! Stock market going down.

May 2, 2003: Mari Jo and Cliff’s car hit by drunk driver outside Miami. Why? They were both only 43. Althea got the news at school and we were on the phone constantly for days. She is incalculably distraught. I wasn’t sure how to handle it but Syl helped to make plane reservations for her and got her down here. She’s been holed up in the room at the top of the house. I have trouble getting up there and generally feel unequal to the situation.

May 4, 2003: Syl organized the funeral and brought assistant Penny to the house to manage stuff for a few days.

May 20, 2003: Althea left to spend summer with school friend in Minnesota.

June 1, 2003: I miss the feeling of Mari Jo—knowing she is in my same world doing things, even when I didn’t get to talk with her. Syl and Penny help me set up a trust fund for Althea.

November 22, 2003: Slept in again. Tired. The new medicine? Nice note from Syl.

February 9, 2004: The big C. Long road ahead—or is it? Medicine and radiation. Ugh.

May 15, 2004: How many years since Syl and I became friends? I swear I am living longer because he takes the worry out of details. Penny is a good helper too. Penny told me about how laws had changed so I needed to have a new will.

May 20, 2004: Didn’t hear from Harold’s old attorney, so Penny and Syl took me out to lunch at the new 1914 Restaurant—crabs and scallops—and then to a new law firm to sign the papers. The papers were ready, but Penny and Syl didn’t go into the lawyer’s office with me because he’s my attorney—funny!

September 14, 2004: I haven’t been strong but managed to have a long talk with Syl on the phone—books, journalism, politics, our first meetings—and finally asked him about how Mammon University knew about Harold. He said good things happen for odd reasons sometimes—that he found Harold’s name on a Coast Guard database of owners of 100-foot-long boats used by Mammon’s planned giving office. Something weird here, but I am too tired to think about it. I am ready to pass on. I miss Harold.

My great Aunt Alma died peacefully September 23, 2004. She was 86.

Althea and I had taken turns in the journal reading, and would look at each other every time Mammon University, Sylvester Smyth, or Penny was mentioned. Sylvester and Penny called several times during that last week, and both came to the memorial service with a photographer in tow.

As it turned out, Uncle Harold was very successful in business and in his investments. When the whole estate was settled, 97% went to Mammon, and 3% to Althea. Her trust fund, an amount based on Aunt Alma’s own experiences as a student in the 1930’s, provides $300 per month. This year Mammon announced completion of their $100 million endowment drive, and a 13% increase in tuition and student fees.

Phil Anthrop is a consultant to foundations in G-8 countries.