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Not Your Typical College Donation

Unofficially, they call it the office of unusual assets.

It’s a phrase those in advancement, such as Cam Kelly ’84, director of major gifts and gift planning, use to describe the planned giving office’s work with a virtual repository of sometimes-quirky, often-valuable donations from alumnae and friends. Parcels of real estate, pricey paintings, rare books, sculptures, and fine silver might belong in the category by virtue of their distinction from the cash or stock donations typically given by alumnae.


A crew shell, donated by the husband of a 1979 alumna and crew team member, plies the Connecticut River regularly

President Carol T. Christ occasionally uses a silver tea service given by a 1942 alumna

There is no actual office of unusual assets. But as Kelly explains, every college receives its share of donated items that might require some creativity among administrators to determine their usefulness.

“If you mention it to other planned giving professionals, they just smile and nod,” says Kelly of this hodgepodge of unusual donations.

An administrator in advancement at Colby College describes a donation of axe handles as part of an entire garage full of belongings given to the college. Then there was the offer there of a complete collection of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books.

“Gifts should have a related college use,” notes Kelly. “We don’t want to have the situation where we accept a gift of property, then place it in a corner somewhere.”

To assess the related use for a proposed gift, the college formed the Gift Acceptance Committee, a small group of administrators, such as Kelly, who consider whether proposed gifts would serve a college use.

A handsome silver tea service given by a 1942 alumna is now put to use on occasion in the President’s house. A specialized telescope that allows views of the sun, donated by the mother of a 1990 Smith alumna, gets regular use by the astronomy department. A crew shell given by the husband of a 1979 alumna hits the water frequently, powered by Smith crew team rowers.

The list goes on: a crèche scene used by the chapel, a topography studio in the art department, an original painting by Georgia O’Keeffe now in the Museum of Art.

These unusual gifts end up on Smith’s doorstep via several paths. Each has its own story, as Kelly would tell you. Sometimes they arrive as part of the estate of an alumna, left as a bequest to the college. More often, the gift is proposed during a donor’s lifetime, allowing for an income tax deduction.

“One of the reasons for moving these types of assets is when people want to downsize an estate,” explains Kelly. “We accept many gifts of property offered to the college, but we can’t accept everything. Fortunately, people are thoughtful, and comparatively few gifts come across my desk that the college declines.”

While unusual gifts are certainly appreciated by the college, every once in a while one ends up at Smith that might have better remained with its original owner.

A decade ago, a valuable-but-temperamental horse was donated to Smith’s equestrian program, Kelly recalls all too well. “It would only allow one person to ride it,” she says of the horse, “and was not adaptable to new student riders.”

“It takes a special kind of temperament to work with a different rider every day,” says Sue Payne, senior coach of riding. “This horse just didn’t have it.”

That horse—perhaps the consummate unusual donation—became grist for a host of advancement insider jokes for a while. “We had to endure all sorts of jokes about looking a gift horse in the mouth,” quips Kelly.

Thankfully, she says, most items that are accepted by Smith through the office of unusual assets are of value and good use to the college.

9/29/06   By Eric Sean Weld
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