Millionaire’s estate reminds us to be selective, generous

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Some lead with strong words. Some lead by example. And some, like the late Virgil Harrigan, show us we can lead with grace and dignity during our lifetime, and well beyond. Harrigan was a Navy veteran who fought in World War II, returned home and opened a small real estate business in once-sleepy Roseville. Like millions of other veterans from the “greatest generation,” Harrigan served his nation humbly, and then helped rebuild this country from the inside out through hard work and thrifty investment. He died in January at 91. But Harrigan was much more, as a dozen Placer County nonprofit organizations found out last week when they shared in a $5.5 million bequest from Harrigan’s estate. The Placer County Office of Education, Placer Land Trust, Salvation Army and Placer County Library System were among the organizations that benefited from Harrigan’s generosity. “Our reaction was ‘Thank God. Amen!’” said Ray Daniels of St. Vincent de Paul of Roseville, after learning of a $100,000 gift from the estate. “We have had bequests before, but we’ve never had this amount,” said county school Superintendent Gayle Garbolina-Mojica, referring to Harrigan’s $540,000 offering to Placer County Office of Education’s special-needs program in Newcastle. By most accounts, Harrigan was a shrewd investor and bargain hunter, whether it was dinner with his friends or golf with his buddies. Although Harrigan didn’t have children of his own, his estate put kids and education first – an admirable position in a time of declining funds for public schools. In spending Harrigan’s gifts, these nonprofits must use the money wisely and considerately, knowing it took this man a lifetime of sacrifice to be so generous now. They should be transparent with their spending choices, just as they should with all donations, and share fully the status of the gift as time goes by. With the holidays here and many charitable organizations suffering through the recession, we all can expect a steady stream of donation requests during the next several weeks. In deciding where you might donate, consider these tips from the American Institute of Philanthropy: Know your charity, and seek detailed information that explains its mission and audited financial status. Know where your dollars go, using 60 percent or more as the benchmark for programs and services. Know when to say no. No legitimate organization will pressure you to give immediately. Do not give cash, and never give a credit card number to a solicitor or Internet site you’re not familiar with. Obtain a receipt of your gift for tax purposes. Remember that “tax exempt” does not always mean “tax deductible.” Be sure of a group’s tax-exempt status before you claim a tax deduction. Don’t be misled by a charity’s familiar name, as some questionable charities resemble respected organizations. Ask for information in writing. Don’t give in to emotional appeals or sob stories, and question any appeal that tells nothing of the charity or is vague about where your money goes. Ask if the charity is registered by federal, state or local authorities, but know that registration is not a stamp of approval or endorsement. Beware of charities bearing gifts, such as stickers, calendars or key rings. It’s against the law for a charity to demand payment for unordered merchandise, so do not feel obligated to make a donation. Consider giving generously. There are many solid charities that need your help. When you donate selectively and wisely, you’re providing funding for essential programs and services that might not be offered otherwise. You might not have the wealth of Warren Buffet or the estate of Virgil Harrigan, but you can make a big difference in the community this holiday season – and well into the future.