Making $12 Billion Worth More Than $12 Billion

Even if you don’t follow the trends in the philanthropic world as obsessively as I do, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about MacKenzie Scott, who has been giving to charity from her Amazon.com wealth at a record pace.

Three years ago, she signed the Giving Pledge and became part of a society of billionaires – brought together by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – who have promised to dedicate the majority of their wealth to charitable causes. Although most of these pledges will be honored as part of an estate plan, Scott is not waiting until she dies to give her money away.

Since she signed the Giving Pledge, she has donated at least $12 billion to charity. As a basis for comparison, last year her donations exceeded the total grants awarded by the Gates Foundation – the largest philanthropic institution in the United States.

By any measure, $12 billion is an enormous number, yet the manner in which Scott gives her money away arguably makes that $12 billion worth even more to the charities that receive it.

When publicly announcing her first round of grants in July 2020, Scott wrote, “I gave each [charity] a contribution and encouraged them to spend it on whatever they believe best serves their efforts. Unless organization leadership requested otherwise, all commitments were paid up front and left unrestricted to provide them with maximum flexibility.”

Without question, an unrestricted gift is by far the most valuable gift a charity can receive. Every organization appreciates a contribution designated for renovating its building, buying a new piece of equipment or supporting a specific program, but there is no more precious charitable resource than a dollar that a top-quality management team can deploy to whatever aspect of its organization’s work it concludes will make the most impact at that time.

This kind of giving requires a remarkable level of humility on the part of the donor. Unlike the way it’s done with many grant programs, Scott and her team identify organizations they deem to be impactful, then choose to respect that these charities are led by people who are the real experts at what they do.

As she noted in that July 2020 announcement, “All of these leaders and organizations have a track record of effective management and significant impact in their fields.”

Rather than dictate to these leaders what they should do and how they should do it, Scott recognizes that successful nonprofit professionals are just that: the professionals who are best qualified to lead a nonprofit organization to success. When donors make an unrestricted gift to a charity with a documented history of impact, they are not only empowering quality leaders, but they are also following a path that’s most likely to realize their philanthropic goals as donors.

I have worked for community foundations for 25 years, so established deadlines, application processes and restricted grants have long been a part of my professional life. Formal grant processes do play an important role in philanthropy because they offer a way for newer charities to make their case and allow for untested, but innovative ideas to connect with funding.

Yet the most impactful projects of which I have been a part were rooted in humility – in recognizing that I will never know as much as the nonprofit leaders who have dedicated their lives to their cause. Donors and those of us at foundations make our greatest impact when we bring together a coalition of charitable professionals and respect that they, collectively, are far more likely to find solutions than we are.

In another announcement in December 2021, Scott wrote that she “trust[s] the track records of impact and on-the-ground insights of hundreds of carefully selected teams working from within communities, offering them all the money up front and then stepping out of their way, encouraging them to spend it however they choose. I understand that this approach, and probably any approach, will mean having given to organizations that might make choices I wouldn’t make myself, but that’s the point. I believe the gifts will do more good if others are free from my ideas about what they should do. And this trust … is the aspect of gifts that many have said they value most.”

The respect that MacKenzie Scott gives to nonprofit professionals and the humility with which she approaches her philanthropy will result in a far greater impact than if she tried to dictate to those organizations that benefit from her generosity.

This article, written by Door County Community Foundation President and CEO, Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

What Door County Can Teach the Country

The late Howard Baker Jr. was a giant of Republican politics. He served for nearly 20 years as a U.S. senator from Tennessee, achieving the role of Senate Majority Leader and ultimately serving as the right hand of President Ronald Reagan as White House Chief of Staff. In Baker’s obituary in 2014, the Washington Post described him as playing a “central role across two decades of Republican politics.” 

As certain as Baker was of the righteousness of his conservative ideals, he humbly rooted himself in the words of his father: “You should always go through life working on the assumption that the other guy might be right.”

In their book, How Democracies Die, political scientists Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write, “When societies divide into partisan camps with profoundly different worldviews, and when those differences are viewed as existential and irreconcilable, political rivalry can devolve into partisan hatred. Parties come to view each other not as legitimate rivals, but as dangerous enemies. Losing ceases to be an accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a catastrophe.” 

Our ability as Americans to work together for the betterment of all our citizens, even those with whom we disagree, is in jeopardy. 

Last month I wrote a column, “The Problematic Shift from the We to the I,” highlighting research showing that our country has been losing a central tenet of what made this nation great. Namely, that our founders’ first commitment as citizens was not to a king, a church or a politician, but to each other. In his book The Upswing, Robert Putnam discusses Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations from 1831 about what made America unique among the nations of the world at that time.

“[Tocqueville] noted a fierce commitment to personal liberty among the descendants of rugged pioneers who had fought so hard for it. But he also observed the coming together of people for mutual purposes, in both the public and private spheres, and found that a multiplicity of associations formed a kind of check on unbridled individualism.” 

Putnam notes that “[American] citizens were profoundly protective of their independence, but through associating widely and deeply, they were able to overcome selfish desires, engage in collective problem solving and work together to build a vibrant and – by comparison to Europe at that time – surprisingly egalitarian society by pursuing what [Tocqueville] called ‘self-interest, rightly understood.’”

The ability for ordinary citizens to so effectively exercise their personal liberty in the context of a common good was, at the time, a uniquely American trait. Arguably, it was the essential piece of what many would eventually refer to as “American Exceptionalism.” Our challenge, as Putnam explains it, is that over the last half century, we have shifted from “the we to the I,” in which our shared commitment to each other has been eclipsed by a growing focus on our own self-interest.

Neither a government program nor a charismatic political leader will reverse this trend, yet Putnam’s book is titled The Upswing precisely because he believes the lessons of our past provide hope for our future. Our pathway to national rejuvenation begins with individual people, exercising their personal liberty to associate with others in service of a common future. American Exceptionalism was made possible because ordinary people didn’t obsess about how they disagreed. Instead, they focused on what they had in common, then worked together to make those things better.

So many politicians and pundits focus on how we differ that we’ve forgotten the values that almost all Americans share. We love our families. We want what’s best for our children, our neighbors and our community. In our little county, virtually all of us have one more critically important thing in common: We love living in Door County. 

There are seeds sprouting all around the peninsula. Think of how the citizens of Door County responded to the COVID-19 crisis. The Door County Emergency Response Fund received more contributions, on a per capita basis, than any other community in Wisconsin. That’s evidence of the passionate commitment that both year-round and seasonal residents have to the place they love. Yet ultimately, the fund is just a fundraising tool. Consider how many of us during the past two years volunteered shoulder to shoulder to help our fellow residents.

For years, Door County has had eight food pantries, seven of which were faith-based organizations, each rooted in a separate denomination whose differences compelled it to operate independently of the others. Yet during the past two years, the volunteers of these pantries from Washington Island to Southern Door have united to form the Door County Food Pantry Coalition (feeddoorcounty.org). Today they coordinate their efforts, buy food in bulk, share a storage facility and truck resources among pantries as needs warrant.

Then there are the response efforts of the Door County Fire Chiefs Coalition. Since the start of COVID-19, perhaps a thousand people have stepped forward to help. At the start of the pandemic, enormous numbers of volunteers distributed 900 prepared meals every day to people out of work. Even more folks pulled together to distribute 1,000 food boxes at a time on so many occasions during the first 18 months of the pandemic. 

Although not directly related to COVID-19, during the past two years, a coalition of Door County businesspeople, nonprofit professionals, housing developers and ordinary citizens have been volunteering their time to explore strategies to build more affordable housing. Later this year, that group will announce the details of its plans for a new nonprofit corporation that will foster the construction of hundreds of affordable rental units in Door County. 

Working side by side with each other isn’t unprecedented around our peninsula, but during the past two years, our issues and experiences have become universal. Therein is perhaps our greatest opportunity in a generation: We’ve once again come together in service of each other. Now we must keep the work going.

It’s naïve to think that the whole nation will change because of what we’re doing in Door County. Yet during the pandemic, similar collective efforts were occurring in communities across our nation. Regular citizens, working together, have unknowingly begun reaffirming the American commitment not to a king, a church or a politician, but to each other. 

Tocqueville didn’t see American greatness in national efforts, but in community-level action that collectively moves the nation. Few of us will ever be able to change the world, yet almost any of us can change Door County when we work together. So join with your neighbor to do something. Get involved. Help make Door County better. That is how we rebuild our nation.

This article, written by Community Foundation President and CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

An Extraordinary Response to an Unusual Request

In December, I did something I rarely do. Rather than talk about charity generally, I asked you to join me in making a gift to a specific charity: United Way of Door County. As I noted in my column titled “An Unusual Request in an Extraordinary Year,” United Way Executive Director Amy Kohnle shared with me that the early contributions to United Way’s annual campaign were lagging. Even more troubling, similar reports were coming from United Ways across the state.

My concern was that Door County had already been remarkably generous to the Door County Community Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund, which we activated in March in partnership with United Way as a response to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. At the time when I wrote December’s column, more than $1 million had been contributed to the Emergency Response Fund and our other relief efforts. That number has grown to $1,150,458 as of the end of January.

The Emergency Response Fund is well positioned to continue to help families through the off-season, but it cannot also cover for a hobbled United Way campaign. Remember that your United Way gift is a contribution to 30 local charities because it’s shared with programs to assist victims of domestic violence, offer loans of free medical equipment, orchestrate activities for young people and support many other forms of charitable work.

Although United Way always plays a critical role in supporting human-service programming in our community, it’s important that the organization is successful now more than ever before because of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.

I’m pleased to report that under the leadership of United Way volunteers and staff, the people of our community responded to the call during this time of crisis in an overwhelming and extraordinary way. Prior to this campaign, the most money United Way had ever raised was $563,578. This year, because of the generosity of people like you, our community simply blew past that old record by raising $752,541. That’s a whopping 34 percent increase over the previous all-time high!

This year’s campaign success was fueled almost equally by an increase in giving among current donors and a significant number of people who gave to United Way for the first time. A total of 1,078 donors contributed to the campaign. Of that number, 18 percent were new to United Way, and collectively, their gifts constituted 51 percent of the total increase in contributions. The other 49 percent of the increase came from existing donors who reached deeper into their pockets.

It’s hard for me to overstate how incredible this is.

“Most United Ways across the state have closed out their campaigns flat or down,” Kohnle said. Some of her counterparts have even extended their campaigns into 2021 in an effort to capture a few more dollars.

That our neighbors opened their wallets yet again to help United Way and its constituent charities – even after donating $1.1 million to the Emergency Response Fund – is a remarkable testament to the generosity of our year-round and seasonal residents.

With all this extraordinary generosity, two things immediately come to mind.

First, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your gifts to United Way will help make life easier for many of our neighbors who are struggling during these difficult times. Both individually and collectively, you are a reminder of what makes Door County such a wonderful place to live. Your generosity is heartwarming.

Second, and more practically, I couldn’t help but wonder what United Way is going to do with all that extra money.

“This is the first time in the 21 years that I have been here that we have surpassed a goal by enough to be able to go back and make increases,” Kohnle said. “We are putting these dollars to good use. We are investing in nearly 30 nonprofit program partners. These programs are working to help Door County residents achieve their full potential through education, financial stability and healthy lifestyles.”

Kohnle recently reconvened the United Way Community Investment Committee and said, “We are pleased to be able to invest 21 percent more into our community than last year. The committee members were thrilled to have more dollars and were all smiles during the meeting.” They are smiling because of people like you.


We are enduring the difficult challenges of this unprecedented time because we are supporting each other and remaining united as one community. You are an inspiration!

This article, written by Community Foundation President and CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

Community Foundation Awards Sustainability Grant to Door County Master Gardeners

The Door County Community Foundation recently awarded Door County Master Gardeners Association a Sustainability Grant from Green Fund and the Clifford and Clara Herlache Heritage Foundation for the Door County Seed Library (DCSL).

DCSL is a free seed lending program where participants can learn about gardening, grow a bounty of food and flowers, and save seeds for the next season.

“The Door County Seed Library is a repository of open-pollinated vegetable, herb, and flowering seeds that participants can ‘check out’ for free and grow at home.” said Kacie Mueller, Community Relations Officer of the Door County Community Foundation. “We are pleased to support a program and hope that the benefits of the Seed Library will ripple through our community as more and more residents become aware of the importance of eating wholesome food.”

From left to right, Kacie Mueller, Community Relations Officer of the Door County Community Foundation, Penne Wilson, Door County Seed Library Team Lead, and Jeanne Vogel Door County Master Gardeners President.

The Door County Master Gardeners Association, Inc., in partnership with UW-Extension, shall strive to make a positive impact on horticulture in our community through education, community outreach and stewardship of our environment. To learn more about the Door County Master Gardeners, please visit www.dcmg.org

The Door County Community Foundation’s Sustainability Grants program distributes grant dollars from funds such as the Arts Fund, Children & Youth Fund, Green Fund, Health & Human Needs Fund, Education Fund, Historic Preservation Fund, Healthy Water Fund, and Women’s Fund.

For more information about the Community Foundation’s services and various grant programs, please visit www.GiveDoorCounty.org.

The Door County Community Foundation, Inc. is a collection of separate charitable funds set up by individuals, families, non-profit organizations, private foundations and businesses that are managed, invested and disbursed for the current and future good of Door County. The Community Foundation was launched in 1999, currently administers more than $22 million in assets, and distributes nearly $2 million to charities in Door County every year.

Community Foundation Awards Sustainability Grant to Altrusa

The Door County Community Foundation recently awarded Altrusa of Door County a Sustainability Grant from Carol Coryell Charitable Fund and the Door County Kairos Fund for the Back to School Fair.

Through the Back to School Fair, Altrusa supplies students with grade-level school supplies, backpack, shoes, toiletries, underwear. Socks, a school spirit shirt, and school registration fees.

“The Altrusa Back to School Fair provides 600 Door County students with the materials they need to thrive at school,” said Jeff Ottum, Treasure of the Door County Community Foundation. “The other component of the Back to School Fair is that the identity of the students receiving these supplies are kept confidential, so all students walk into school on the first day ready to learn, achieve, and maximize his/her potential.”

From left to right, Cheri Meyvis of Altrusa and Jeff Ottum, Treasurer of Door County Community Foundation.

Founded in 1917, Altrusa is relevant to many civic-minded people who are interested in creating better communities. Last year, Altrusans proudly gave over a million volunteer hours around the world, including clubs in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, England, Bermuda, Ireland, India, Scotland, New Zealand and Russia.

Several decades ago, Altrusa decided to institute literacy as an area of focus for the organization; since then, service areas have expanded to include HIV/AIDS and disaster relief. During our last biennium, Altrusans assisted in relief efforts for the Port-au-Prince, Haiti and Christchurch, New Zealand earthquakes, as well as the Tsunami in Japan. Most importantly, Altrusans give their time and resources in areas that are deemed most important in their local communities.

The Altrusa story is evolving every day through club accomplishments. When you visit any Altrusa club, you will see leadership and service in action. Please visit:  http://www.altrusa.org for more information.

The Door County Community Foundation’s Sustainability Grants program distributes grant dollars from funds such as the Arts Fund, Children & Youth Fund, Green Fund, Health & Human Needs Fund, Education Fund, Historic Preservation Fund, Healthy Water Fund, and Women’s Fund.

For more information about the Community Foundation’s services and various grant programs, please visit www.GiveDoorCounty.org.

The Door County Community Foundation, Inc. is a collection of separate charitable funds set up by individuals, families, non-profit organizations, private foundations and businesses that are managed, invested and disbursed for the current and future good of Door County. The Community Foundation was launched in 1999, currently administers more than $22 million in assets, and distributes nearly $2 million to charities in Door County every year.

The Freedom to Commit

The Celebration of Giving is a free, annual community luncheon that honors the great philanthropists of Door County. As president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation, I offer the event’s closing comments and summarize the lessons we can draw from the honorees’ lifetime of service.

The 2019 Philanthropists of the Year are Mike and Marge McCoy, who have always been passionate about philanthropy, both as volunteers and benefactors. Their civic and community service was celebrated in Iowa and Minnesota, and they continued their giving tradition when they retired to Door County. Through organizations such as Bethany Lutheran Church, the Crime Prevention Foundation, the Door County Land Trust, Northern Sky Theater, United Way and the Door County Community Foundation itself, the McCoys’ wise counsel, tireless volunteerism and abundant generosity have touched many lives in our community.

During the weeks leading up to the luncheon, I spoke with people who know the McCoys well and listened for common themes. The word people used to describe Marge and Mike more than any other was “commitment.” They don’t do anything halfway.

Whether it’s traveling long distances to spend time with family or diving headlong into a fundraising campaign for a favorite charity, the McCoys fully commit themselves to the people and things they love. And the depth and authenticity of their personal commitments inspire others to join them.

These days, when we talk about commitment, we tend to refer to it as the terms of a contract, as in, “I’m legally committed to do this.” Yet when we anchor our definition in the context of a contract, we diminish the very spirit that makes a commitment unique.

A person negotiating a contract seeks to balance the costs and benefits of a relationship: You give me this; I give you that. At its best, a contract is a fair and equitable exchange that serves both your interests and those of the other party.

But author and New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that a commitment is far more than that: It’s a promise made from love. At its best then, a commitment is an obligation willingly made to another without any expectation of compensation in return.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former spiritual head of the largest synagogue in the UK, goes even further than Brooks to say that a commitment is a covenant. A contract can benefit you, but only a commitment has the power to transform you.

When we commit ourselves to someone or something we love beyond ourselves, we discover that it’s almost as if we’re serving a part of ourselves – that carrying the mantle of responsibility for the people and places we love doesn’t weigh us down, but rather, it gives our life meaning and purpose.

Brooks says that the best life is lived by those who make voluntary commitments, then fulfill them. That is, we are our best selves when we make a promise to another and then remain faithful to that promise.

As one person who knows the McCoys well told me, “They don’t do things for recognition. They don’t even do it for self-satisfaction. They do things because they’ve made a commitment, and it needs to be done.”

In this life, we have been blessed with remarkable freedom, and its value is not that it frees us from obligation. Its blessing is that it frees us to choose for ourselves that which we will love and to fully commit ourselves to it.

There’s an old Tibetan saying that the Dalai Lama is fond of quoting: “Wherever you have friends, that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.” 

We who are at home here in Door County celebrate Marge and Mike McCoy not because of the boards they’ve served on or the money they’ve given away. We celebrate the McCoys because of the commitments they’ve made. Through their actions, they’ve said, “Door County is our home.” They’ve found the parts of it they love the most, and they’ve accepted the responsibility of making those parts stronger.

The best way we can celebrate Mike and Marge McCoy is to learn from and follow their fine example: Find a part of Door County that you care deeply about. Then willingly make your own commitment to make it better.

This article, written by President and CEO of the Community Foundation, Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

Nine Months That Changed Everything

As a father of six children, I have personally experienced the monumental difference that nine months can make in a life. Apparently, that applies to charities as well. During the last three fiscal quarters, the leadership of the Boys and Girls Club of Door County has made dramatic changes and is successfully addressing its financial crisis.

Quite simply, the organization had become a victim of its own success. After opening the David G. Hatch Center in 2016, it had more activity space than ever before. With good hearts and the right spirit, its leadership threw the doors wide open and invited in every child who needed its resources.

Unlike a business in which new customers translate into more profits, whenever a new group of kids walks through the door, the Boys and Girls Club loses more money. Most of its children could never afford to pay the full cost of the services they receive, yet the organization must always maintain a ratio of at least one adult for every 15 kids. More kids mean greater costs but almost no new revenue. It’s a nonprofit precisely because there is no profit to be made.

Throughout 2018, the Boys and Girls Club was running an absolutely alarming deficit. It had to borrow money to meet its current obligations and was having difficulty covering payroll. That’s when its leadership came to visit us at the Door County Community Foundation.

After a painstakingly thorough evaluation of the Boys and Girls Club’s financial crisis and proposed workout plan, we at the Community Foundation felt confident enough to encourage the people of Door County to join us in giving the organization a second chance to thrive. We sent letters to our friends, and I wrote the column “Don’t You Quit.” I’m pleased to report that not only did our community give the Boys and Girls Club that second chance, but it’s now well on its way to thriving.

Since the crisis began, the Community Foundation has been receiving regular strategic and financial reports and has met with the organization’s leadership on several occasions. Our most recent meeting was just a few days ago with CEO Julie Davis, CFO Cindy Neuville, and board member Erich Pfeifer. I’m pleased to report that things are trending in a very optimistic direction.

On the revenue side of the ledger, consultants were brought in to help implement proven strategies to acquire new donors, and a stewardship committee was formed to better engage current donors. As a result, the number of donors increased by 29 percent. Nationally, the average donor-retention rate (the percentage of last year’s donors who gave again this year) typically hovers around 45 percent. The Boys and Girls Club’s rate is 61 percent.

On the expense side, the organization has consolidated operations and found efficiencies in how it deploys staff. As a result, payroll was cut by 14 percent, and overall expenses were reduced by 17 percent compared to the fiscal year before the crisis began.

Of course, all of these changes come with a human cost. The Boys and Girls Club cannot afford to serve the same number of children that it did a year ago. Then again, the reality is that it couldn’t afford to serve all those kids last year either. The only way it was possible then was to borrow money and go into debt.

Gratefully, because of our community’s generosity over the last few months, the organization is now completely debt free.

The fundamental causes of this financial crisis were overly optimistic revenue assumptions combined with exceedingly aggressive program expansion. Although that was a strategic mistake and a long-term recipe for disaster, we should pause to celebrate the spirit behind those decisions.

Within the leaders of our Boys and Girls Club is the compelling and sometimes overwhelming desire to help every child who needs them. That’s the kind of spirit we want in those who run the organization. Yet we also need the leadership of human-service organizations to make sure that their hearts remain in balance with their heads. Although we may want to rescue everyone who’s fallen into the water, we must also ensure that we aren’t so overwhelmed that we end up sinking the boat.

The Boys and Girls Club has used our community’s recent generosity wisely. It has plans for future growth, but those plans are realistic and appropriate, and they should be implemented at a far more measured pace. Thankfully, it appears that the Boys and Girls Club of Door County will be here for our children for many years to come.

This article, written by Community Foundation President and CEO, Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

A Donor’s Horror Story

Imagine making a contribution of $25,000 to your favorite charity only to have the Internal Revenue Service disallow your tax deduction. This nonprofit horror story may sound absurd, but if you’re not careful, it could happen to you.

It starts with a nonprofit that you’ve been giving to for many years and know very well. It’s a legitimate 501(c)(3) public charity as recognized by the IRS. You know members of the board of directors and have met regularly with the professional staff. It truly is a great organization and unquestionably, your gift will do wonderful things for the charity and the community it serves.

Several years pass and you see the impact of your gift, and you couldn’t be more pleased. But during a routine audit of your taxes by the IRS, your $25,000 deduction is suddenly, and completely, disallowed.

You’re confused and don’t understand what you did wrong. This is a legitimate nonprofit organization. You did not receive anything in exchange for your gift. Everything about this gift and the charity involved was honest and appropriate. It turns out the IRS disallowed your gift because of the omission of a single sentence.

The receipt provided by the organization failed to state that you “did not receive any goods or services” in exchange for your contribution.

That’s it. That’s all it took. The failure of the charity to include a single sentence was sufficient for the IRS to disallow the deduction. Somewhere, really anywhere, on a receipt, thank you letter, or other acknowledgment of your gift, the charity needed to include that sentence. The charity can word it in a variety of different ways, but it needs to put into writing that that “you did not receive any goods or services in exchange for your contribution.”

These are the essential facts of the real life nonprofit horror story of David and Veronda Durden. In 2007, the Durdens made a contribution of nearly $25,000 to their nonprofit church and received an acknowledgment of their gift for tax purposes. This generous couple did not receive anything tangible or substantial in exchange for their gift, but the thank you letter from the charity did not explicitly say so. Thus the IRS disallowed the deduction.

There is some logic to the IRS’ position. Before you are allowed to claim a tax deduction, the government wants to be assured that your charitable gift was actually a gift, and not a payment. For example, the checks you write to a nonprofit preschool for your child’s tuition are not charitable gifts. You’re purchasing a service. The IRS needs to be able to differentiate between your payments to a nonprofit to obtain a good or service and charitable gifts for which you receive nothing substantial in return.

In the case of the Durdens, theirs was a legitimate charitable gift but their church failed to clearly state that no goods or services were provided. Of course, you would have thought that they could have simply corrected this problem by asking the organization to correct their omission. Indeed, that is exactly what the Durdens did in 2009, more than two years after they made their gift. The charity issued a second letter, this time including the key sentence that no goods or services were provided to the donors. Unfortunately, the IRS still disallowed the contribution.

The IRS says that “a donor claiming a deduction of $250 or more is also required to obtain and keep a contemporaneous written acknowledgment for a charitable contribution.” The key word is “contemporaneous.” The IRS says that “to be contemporaneous the written acknowledgment must generally be obtained by the donor no later than the date the donor files the return for the year the contribution is made.” (Both quotes are taken directly from the IRS website).

In practical terms, the IRS was saying that it was too late for the Durdens to obtain a new letter from the charity. The new 2009 acknowledgment letter correctly included the key sentence about “no goods or services” but it was not “contemporaneous” because it was obtained after their taxes were filed.

Needless to say, many thought this was absurd and thus the Durdens took the issue to tax court. After years of court battles, and to the dismay of the Durdens and donors everywhere, in Durden v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service the Court sided with the IRS. Clearly, the charity erred in its failure to include the “no goods or services” sentence, but the court affirmed that obligation to obtain the correct documentation before filing their taxes is on the Durdens, not the charity.

And so here we are. A couple makes a remarkably generous gift of $25,000 to a charity. The charity screws up and fails to put into writing that no goods or services were provided in exchange for that gift. As a result, the IRS disallows the tax deduction to which the donors should have been entitled. It’s every donor’s horror story.

So when you make a gift, remember that the IRS says that it’s your responsibility to obtain the necessary documentation to claim a tax deduction. Here’s what the IRS says you need as a donor:

  • For gifts of less than $250, you must have a bank record or written communication from a charity documenting the gift.
  • For gifts of $250 or more, you must obtain a contemporaneous written acknowledgment (a thank you letter, receipt, or other acknowledgment letter) from the charity stating what was contributed.
  • If nothing substantial was provided to you in return for your gift, the acknowledgment must say so in writing, something to the effect of “no goods or services were provided in exchange for your contribution.”
  • If you received something substantial in return for your gift, such as when you purchase tickets for a golf fundraising event, the acknowledgment letter should value those services and state something like “you received lunch and a round of golf valued at $75 in exchange for your contribution of $250.”

For more information, visit the IRS website and to download IRS Publication 1771, Charitable Contributions – Substantiation and Disclosure Requirements. Don’t let a nonprofit horror story happen to you.

Bret Bicoy is president & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at the Community Foundation.

(This column originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.)

Margaret Lockwood Featured in Winter Exhibition

The community is invited to attend a reception on Saturday, January 23rd from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Door County Community Foundation to open its Lobby Gallery Winter Exhibition featuring works by artist Margaret Lockwood. The Community Foundation is located at 342 Louisiana Street in Sturgeon Bay across from the Post Office.

Lockwood 01Margaret has a constant desire to paint canvases that create the feeling of space. Her tools are color relationships, layers of atmosphere, and rhythmic interludes. Margaret says, “I want each work to gently welcome viewers into a peaceful place within the painting and within themselves. My work sometimes begins with looking at the surrounding landscape or often begins as a conversation with the painting before it.” No matter how they are started, the real work comes in the doing, while she is in the middle of it all. Margaret is required to have trust in the unknown and yet-to-be, remaining open to change and chance along the way, but also to direct the creation.

In Door County, Margaret lived in the woods and then in a farmhouse with open fields all around. Her work is overwhelmingly a response to her appreciation of the fragile beauty of those remembered trees and the peacefulness of fleeting light and color across the fields and in the clouds above.

Lockwood 02Margaret shares, “I respond to the atmosphere and the private spaces and moments still to be found in our environment and daily lives as we have entered the 21st century. I am concerned with the layers of connection between our external world and that of our inner worlds, and how we relate to and are informed by our precious environment, each other, as well as our hopes and memories. I want to make visible the mysterious atmosphere of landscapes and spaces within us, our spiritual homes.”

“Each of us is alone ultimately. Understanding this solitude may bring feelings of sadness, but knowing that this is common to all of us can be profoundly reassuring. We can feel connected to our world if we notice. We can feel connected to those who are with us now, along with those who came before and those who are yet to be, if we care,” says Margaret. She hopes there are some who can feel this mysterious yearning mixed with wonder in her work.

The Community Foundation’s reception is being coordinated with the “You Draw & Paint on What?” exhibit at the Miller Art Museum that same evening. The exhibition will feature works of 12 Wisconsin artists who draw and paint with traditional and non-traditional media in new and surprising ways. Guests are encouraged to visit Sturgeon Bay and drop by both the Miller Art Museum and the Community Foundation Lobby Gallery opening receptions.

Refreshments will be served at the Door County Community Foundation by Morag Hornsby and her team at Serves You Right Catering.

Each quarter, different Door County artists will be invited to exhibit their work. The Gallery is normally open to the public during the Community Foundation’s regular hours of 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Grant Awarded to Door County Medical Center Foundation

The Door County Community Foundation has awarded the Door County Medical Center Foundation a Sustainability Grant from the Health and Human Needs Fund. This grant provides financial support for further development of the Ministry Memory Clinic.

The Ministry Memory Clinic Door County (MMCDC) was established in 2011 with assistance from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the support of Ministry Health Care. Its mission is to provide a center of excellence in the early diagnosis and treatment of dementia. It serves as a diagnostic service for patients with memory impairment and a resource of information and care management for families dealing with dementia.

2015-04-13 09.49.47“The Door County Community Foundation is committed to supporting the aging population of Door County through this grant to the Memory Clinic,” said Mike Felhofer, board member of the Door County Community Foundation.

The major outcomes desired from the Ministry Memory Clinic are threefold:  1)Accurate diagnosis of specific dementia through a comprehensive approach, 2)Improved accessibility to dementia-specific diagnosis and care 3)Improved access to  caregiver education and support.

The Door County Medical Center Foundation was created to develop and manage giving opportunities that support the health care needs of the community.  Since its inception in 1988, the Foundation has provided fundraising and grant writing support to the Ministry Door County Medical Center that has helped to create programs, provide health care related scholarship opportunities, update technology, construct new state of the art facilities, create endowment funds and provide hospital wide volunteer opportunities.

For more information about the Door County Medical Center Foundation, please call (920) 746-1071.

The Door County Community Foundation’s Sustainability Grants program distributes grant dollars from funds such as the Arts Fund, Children & Youth Fund, Green Fund, Health & Human Needs Fund, Education Fund, Historic Preservation Fund, Healthy Water Fund, and the Women’s Fund.

For more information about the Community Foundation’s services and various grant programs, please visit our website.