Mark Eisner’s posthumous self-sabotage

Every so often, a charitable donation comes along which is so atrocious, on so many levels, that it deserves to be aired out in public as a prime example of what not to do.

So let me introduce you to Mark Eisner Jr, an animal lover and car-dealership magnate who drew up a doozy of a will in the years before he died. Under the conditions of a trust he created to give away his money, $750,000 was to be donated to the Anne Arundel SPCA, where he had previously been a board member. But there was a catch: the charity must have “substantially completed a new building from which to conduct its principal activities in Anne Arundel County” by 10 years after his death, or it would forfeit the donation, and the money would go to five other charities instead.

This is legit bonkers, not least because it violates one of the first laws of philanthrophy, which is, don’t fund architecture. The purpose of the SPCA is animal welfare, and in any given time period, that purpose is generally going to be better served by concentrating on animals, rather than contractors and architects. Constructing a new building is a very expensive, time-consuming process, which diverts management attention away from its core purpose and which also invariably ends up costing a lot more than anticipated, not only in terms of initial construction costs but also in terms of annual upkeep.

Eisner’s condition also violates another key law of philanthropy, which is don’t give money to people you don’t trust. If you believe in the mission of the Anne Arundel SPCA, and believe in its officers’ ability to deliver, then by all means give them your money. But if you don’t, then there are lots of other charities which do have your trust and which you’d be better off supporting. Clearly Eisner didn’t trust that the SPCA would do what he wanted them to do; that alone should have been enough for him not to give them money. But don’t try and make other professionals jump through hoops to do what you think they should do rather than what they think they should do. That’s just a dick move.

While we’re tallying up broken philanthropic laws, here’s another: frontload, don’t backload. Your money can do more good today than it can in a decade’s time, and the only people who benefit if you just sit on it for ten years are money managers. The $750,000 grew to $1,022,832.06 over ten years, which is an annualized growth rate of a pretty unimpressive 3%.

Worse still, Eisner managed to posthumously waste a whole bunch of money on entirely predictable and avoidable shenanigans surrounding his bequest. There’s now a whole lawsuit surrounding this money, with lawyers fighting it out on both sides, and a judge whom I’m sure has much more important things to worry about. Plus there are a bunch of trustees, tasked with second-guessing Eisner’s intentions. Those trustees, like many trustees, turned out to be hopelessly otiose, and rather than making a simple decision one way or the other, have decided that they’d rather punt the whole thing to the courts. None of this was necessary: Eisner could and should have simply given his money away, which would have obviated the need for trustees entirely.

In general, the thing to remember is that once you’ve given your money away, it’s no longer your money. And once you’re dead, it’s similarly no longer your money. Don’t try to control it, in either circumstance. No good can come of that.

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