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January 16, 2018; Current (Carmel, IN)

The Great American Songbook Foundation is around 10 years old and has an annual budget of less than $1 million, so accepting the donation of the $30 million Asherwood Estate is…well, complicated.

The estate, donated by Bren Simon, widow of shopping mall magnate and Indiana Pacers co-owner Mel Simon, includes a couple of golf courses, a pool, a fully furnished 50,000-square-foot main house, and a clubhouse—all set on 107 acres. There are no conditions on the contribution.

The upkeep alone could easily eat up the entire current budget of the organization, what with the nine staff required to maintain the property, and it should be pretty darn clear to any manager or board who have taken a trip or two around the block that such a gift could potentially ruin the organization. On the other hand, as Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard says, “It’s an opportunity to do something special with national significance.”

This isn’t the first time the Simons have tried to move the property, which has covenants that disallow certain kinds of development. In fact, the property has been on the market since 2014 at $25 million with no takers. Additionally, a previous attempt to contribute the property to the Indiana University Foundation in 2008 fell through.

For now, the board says it will take three years to explore every option, which might include a museum, the sale of part of the property, or some level of development allowable under its covenants. But when they accepted the donation, they also accepted the carrying costs, so every day of that three years will cost cash money.

Is this a gift horse or a Trojan Horse, as Clara Miller would urge us to ask? She writes, “Happy gifts are memorable, well-timed, and appropriate to the occasion; and they make everyone feel great. Unhappy gifts don’t work for familiar reasons: they don’t fit, or are ill-timed, age-inappropriate, too expensive to own.”

“Most organizations are not well-equipped to deal with asset donations like that,” said Bryan Orander, president of the Indianapolis-based Charitable Advisor, who was quoted in the Indianapolis Business Journal. “Their business is not events; it’s not managing real estate; it’s not really anything associated with this lavish property. It’s a potentially tough situation.”

Foundation CEO Jeff McDermott thinks the gift could jumpstart the Foundation, speculating aloud that charity events could be held on the golf course and that the size of the gift might spark other gifts. But we are reminded of Clara Miller’s caution that you have to be clear about the core of your purpose and essential business model and not just willy-nilly heap real estate on top of that.—Ruth McCambridge