Naming gifts aren’t always about self-gratification. They often honor the rich and generous lives of donors and individuals.
A few weeks ago, Ken Griffin’s $300 million contribution to Harvard University inspired an op-ed in Inside Philanthropy calling on universities to be more circumspect in allowing naming rights. Named gifts are easy targets for criticism, and many wealthy donors have been accused of making charitable contributions out of mere vanity or as a Quixotic attempt to cheat death. Like many philanthropic critiques, this one misses the forest for the trees by focusing exclusively on mega-gifts to elite institutions. Most named gifts are far more modest and rooted closer to home—a classroom in a beloved school or a bench in a favorite park. Gifts like these can serve as a touchstone for family members for years to come, honoring someone’s memory and enriching the community in which they lived.
Named gifts have been on my mind this week, not because of the announcement of Mr. Griffin’s gift, but because my grandfather passed away peacefully on April 12. His 93 years left an indelible impression not only on my family, but also on his community, which pooled donations to create a named fund in honor of my grandparents’ devotion to their church.
A kind and soft-spoken man, my grandfather was a Navy veteran and a chemist who spent his entire career with Exxon in Houston after earning his Ph.D. He was devoted to his family, especially his wife Margaret, to whom he was married for 64 years until her passing in 2020. For her memorial service, he filled the halls of their church with photos, letters, watercolor paintings, and even her high school diploma. My grandparents shared a faith that never wavered, and they were charter members of Christ Memorial Lutheran Church, which served as the center of their social lives and civic engagement.
Reflecting on my grandparents’ lives, it stands out to me how remarkably active they were in their community. My grandmother played the piano at retirement homes every week until her eyesight failed. My grandfather tutored children at the local elementary school and taught ESL night classes. Christ Memorial Church was the spring from which their good works flowed, allowing them to build an enriching life together in a city far from where either of them was born.
My grandparents served as models of meaningful civic engagement, not only for their children and grandchildren, but for other congregation members. Last fall, when my grandfather moved from Houston to a nursing home in Austin, members of the church gathered for one last prayer breakfast to wish him farewell. To my family’s surprise, they announced that the church had collected $5,000 in donations to start the Bruce and Margaret Koons Missions Fund, named in honor of my grandparents for all that they had devoted to the church for more than 50 years. Six months later, he is gone, but the fund continues to support the efforts of Lutheran missionaries around the world.
In my professional life, I have the privilege of advising donors on their gifts to higher education. For many donors, naming and legacy are important considerations. When advising donors, I help them to think through the technical details of their gift agreement. How and where will the name appear? Which abbreviations, if any, are acceptable?
These details may seem trivial, but working through them often helps donors visualize the legacy they will leave. My organization has advised donors making named gifts to establish a new building, an internship program, a lecture series, an endowed chair, and more. The size of the gift has no bearing on its meaning or on the importance the individuals place on getting the details of how their name will be used just right. Names carry a legacy, and that can be a beautiful thing.
As I reflect on my grandfather’s life, I find great comfort in knowing that his name and my grandmother’s will live on at a place that meant so much to them both. Of course, their names will live on in our family, too. My daughter’s middle name is Margaret, and it is my greatest hope that her life reflects the same joy, love, and devotion of her namesake.