Three Lessons from the Estate of Ronald Read

What happens when a man who looked like he couldn’t rub two nickels together turns out to have amassed $8 million?  He gets a lot of attention.

Made in VermontRecent news reports have highlighted the life of Ronald Read, an unassuming Vermonter who worked as a janitor for much of his life.  Mr. Read passed away last summer at 92.  As his estate was being administered, those who knew him expressed shock that he had saved up $8 million and had chosen to give the bulk of his estate to charity, as seen in this local news report.

For those who have spent time in the non-profit world, stories like this aren’t as uncommon as the reports would have you think.  That next major donor often turns out to be a millionaire-next-door.

For charities and donors, there are lessons to be learned from Mr. Read’s story:

1.Anyone can be a philanthropist

It doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you have.  Anyone can be a philanthropist.  All it takes are a generous spirit and action to put charitable wishes into place.  Which leads to…

2. Have an estate plan in place

Don’t let the word “estate” fool you into thinking you need to be ultra-wealthy in order to have an estate plan.  Having an estate plan allows you to state your final wishes clearly so that they can be carried out – including bequests to charity.

Mr. Read had done his planning, and the beneficiaries of his generosity are all the more grateful for it.

3. You can’t judge a person’s wealth by their appearance

Mr. Read didn’t drive expensive cars (he drove a Toyota Yaris) nor wear fancy clothes (he used safety pins to hold his coat together).  He displayed none of the trappings of wealth.

Yet his lifelong frugality and his decades of discipline investing in the stock market enabled him to accumulate his wealth and ultimately leave millions to two local charities.

Charitable donors make multi-million dollar gifts all the time.  The reason Mr. Read is drawing attention is precisely because he didn’t look or act like the stereotypical philanthropist.

The fact is, there is no such thing as a “sterotypical” philanthropist (see #1 above).  People give for different reasons, in different ways.

Many of the news reports are overly concerned with Mr. Read’s previously unknown wealth.  How someone acquired the money that he or she chooses to give away should be irrelevant (criminal activity notwithstanding).  The focus should be on the act of giving itself.

At the same time, all of the attention has a bright side.  Mr. Read’s example helps demonstrate that philanthropy is universal and within reach for all.  For that, we have him to thank.

Comments or feedback?  Contact me on Twitter @juanros

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