After raising six children in their Akron, Ohio, home, Charles and Mary Booth didn't have a lot of cash left over for favorite charities, such as the YMCA where Charles learned to swim in the 1930s.
But that didn't stop this retired banker and his wife from carving out a legacy that's sure to impact lives in Akron for generations to come. What began as a $5,000 gift to the Akron Community Foundation almost 20 years ago has grown to "considerably more than that," Mr. Booth says, thanks to careful planning and the power of leveraged donations.
"We never had the kind of money that Bill Gates or Warren Buffet have," Mr. Booth says, referring to the world's richest men, whose philanthropic moves dominated headlines earlier this summer. Still, he says, "we had a little more breathing room" after the children were grown. Now the whole family gives to the fund regularly, including at birthdays in lieu of presents, at the parents' request. Interest income goes to cash-poor nonprofits in the area. Among their favorites are the YMCA and Family Services of Akron, where Mary once led a life-skills class for single parents.
Philanthropic legacies are not an exclusive province of billionaires with money to burn. Others have learned creative techniques to leverage time, talent, and treasure – not just their own, but that of other donors as well – in ways that make sure their deepest personal values produce an impact long after they're gone.
To be sure, having substantial assets makes the process of creating a legacy easier, but even that is no guarantee of success, according to Bruce Bigelow, founding partner of Charitable Development Consulting in Frederick, Md. Instead, he says, members of the middle class can learn from givers big and small who figured out well in advance what they wanted to have happen after they die.
"Leaving a legacy is really different from responding to a crisis," Mr. Bigelow says, yet not all donors recognize the distinction. Designers of a legacy need to look long-term, beyond immediate relief efforts, he says, and ask, "How do I want the world to be different when I'm not here [as a result] of what I did? What do I really care about?" For those with limited means, he says, effectiveness usually means teaming up strategically with a solid organization.
"Maybe Bill Gates or [investor and philanthropist] George Soros can create institutions that weren't there before," Bigelow says. "But most people can't do that" on a scale that will make a lasting impact.
As an example, Bigelow points to his late father, Ernest Bigelow. At his 50th reunion from Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, he wanted to make a special gift, but couldn't afford much after a lifelong career as a Presbyterian minister. So he committed $15,000 – "it may as well have been Bill Gates's billions" it was such a whopping sum for him, Bigelow says – to a pooled income fund at the school. Invested together with a "pool" of other donations, the principal would generate much-needed income until his death, at which point the interest generated would begin funding scholarships for chemistry and philosophy majors. Over 17 years, the principal grew to about $24,000 – enough to generate scholarships today in the range of $1,000 per year.
People with more funds to spare are also demonstrating the principle of amplifying one's legacy through teamwork.
After retiring from general contracting in the mid-1990s, Tom Siegfried of Sarasota, Fla., chose to build facilities where the Christian Children's Fund (CCF) could base health-related ministries in the developing world. For less than $50,000 each, Mr. Siegfried built a dormitory for homeless women in India and a health clinic in Kenya. One he named after his parents; the other, he dedicated to a long-time friend.
Five years ago, after his wife Judy lost a daughter during pregnancy, Siegfried focused on maternal and child-health facilities in honor of the girl who would have been named Sky Siegfried. In total, during more than 12 years of bankrolling projects and making seed donations that inspire other donors to step up, he's enabled the construction of 127 health clinics and emergency facilities in Africa and Central America.
Though Siegfried might have had enough dollars to chart a solo path, he says he teamed up with CCF and other donors in order to maximize the legacy impact.
"I was just looking for the greatest impact I could have. It's a basic business thing," Siegfried says. "We build the facilities, and CCF operates them.... It's really neat because [the partnership] has allowed us to do some major things."
Other successful retirees have drawn similar conclusions. In the case of Indianapolis dental surgeon Dale Lentz, for instance, a partnership with the Indiana University School of Dentistry opened the door to opportunity.
A second-generation dentist with a son now in dental school, Dr. Lentz says he worries about the future of dental education in an age when dentists can make $300,000 a year in private practice, but only about $100,000 in academe. To help remedy the problem, he explored donating $1.2 million of his retirement savings into a charitable remainder trust. The trust would generate annual income for him until death and then serve as an endowment to sweeten compensation, to the tune of an extra $60,000 per year, for Indiana University's Chair of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.
Then came the clincher. In 2004, officials from the university agreed that in exchange for Lentz's commitment, they would provide the additional $60,000 per year to the chairmanship until the time of Lentz's death. Eager to see his legacy realized during his lifetime and still receive sufficient income in retirement, Lentz signed the papers.
"That was the kicker," Lentz says. "I don't think I would have done this without that enticement" from the university.
Openness to teamwork doesn't guarantee that an intended legacy will be effective, according to Bigelow. Too often, he says, individuals will jump at a giving opportunity before discussing the idea with family members who have an inheritance stake. Sour feelings can dampen moods just when the giver should be feeling good, he says.
Another common mistake: trying so hard to benefit people who meet a specific description that few end up qualifying for assistance. The legacy then becomes largely inert. Bigelow gives the hypothetical example of a scholarship fund for students who matriculate from "Podunk, Iowa" to Yale. Broadening parameters to include schools in Iowa would help the legacy have more of an impact, he says.
"If the criteria are too narrow, then it won't be effective," Bigelow says.
In the end, charting an effective legacy turns out to be less about having mountainous sums to give away and more about identifying worthy goals and worthy channels for achieving them. Once those are established, experts say, the path to making a difference even after death is already well lit.