Everyone wants one. Not every organization gets one. Guess what? Surprise new donors are…well, surprising!


Organizations aspire to nurturing the kind of donors who make an unexpected bequest, one of the frequent ways donors truly surprise nonprofits.


These surprise donors are ones who never interact with your planned giving program. Most often they have never previously written a check. And when affinity works its own magic, you can’t predict some of the largest gifts that may come your way.


Here are just a few surprise donor profiles of those who have given mightily– but not predictably! (Note: These just happen to all be women!)


The Quiet IRS Auditor who believed in Women’s Education and outran Buffet

The lawyer kept calling until finally President Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University had to take the call. Turned out, the lawyer represented a quiet, unassuming woman who lived an extremely modest life in Manhattan since her 1944 retirement. Until her death in early 1995, Anne Schreiber would be seen in her decades-old coat on the Upper West Side where she lived simply and spent as little money as possible. Most who encountered her just assumed she had few resources.

But she knew of the university’s tradition of women’s education, but her experience with career discrimination at the IRS led her to believe women generally were not treated fairly when it came to promotions and scholarships. She wasn’t an alumna and no one at YU knew her.


Turns out, Schreiber believed in the missions of YU’s Stern College for Women and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Unknown to anyone except her lawyer, she had amassed a fortune through simple yet savvy investment strategies (read how she turned $5,000 into millions). Upon her passing at age 101, Schrieber bequeathed some funds to some women in her family and left a record $22 million to the New York city institution which continues to provide scholarships to women via Schreiber’s funds.


“You think Warren Buffett, you know, that guy, was good at this sort of thing?”, her lawyer Ben Clark told The New York Times. “She ran rings around Warren Buffett.”


And Dr. Lamm was happy his office finally took Clark’s call.


The British School Principal who Made Some Good Friends in Hawaii

When the Salvation Army Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division unexpectedly received as $203,000 bequest from retired school principal Diana Lord, they had no idea why. Turns out the connection was through a woman who was helped by the SA when she was a pregnant teen. The woman was later Lord’s cleaning woman and was then her caregiver. It’s a story of “passing it on” and how important old-fashioned word of mouth can be.


The Professor who donated to the Tune of Almost Twice the Size of the Operating Budget

So that budget is $150,000 and the out-of-the-blue bequest is $267,000. That spells endowment for a small New England chamber music organization. An academic who was a feminist scholar and leader in gender studies was a quiet but very appreciate fan of Kingston Chamber Music Festival, attending concerts for many years.


How Can You Build This Kind of Loyalty?


What qualities do these organizations, and others that receive large surprise gifts, have that your organization might possess? Do you have what it takes be the beneficiary of such wealth?


These qualities are ones that might best set up your nonprofit to be more likely to receive surprise gifts. In fact, these attributes aren’t bad rules for daily life. And, therein, lies their power.


  1. Never assume. Never assume that the shabbily dressed person who attends your events has less to offer than your top donors. Good reason to be sure everyone is welcomed and feels comfortable in your space. Your kindness and sincerity may be remembered in generous ways.
  2. Word of mouth. Again, one of the most powerful tools. As you can’t really control word of mouth, you want to support all the reasons why yours will be positive.
  3. Be true to your mission. These days, your mission is as visible on your website as clothes on a backyard clothesline. Continue to groom ALL of your employees and volunteers to support and reinforce your mission daily.
  4. Tell your stories. Be sure the public is hearing about your good work. This assures anyone who reads more on your proficiency and dedicated. You may never meet the person who reads that media story or online content, but they’ll know what’s important about your organization and the difference it makes.
  5. Always check your messages return your calls. Dr. Lamm at YU (above) would agree; you just never know. This is why having your phones covered (yes, that device that rings on your office desk) and voice mails checked from the beginning of the fall through December 31 is important. That’s when many stock donations are made. You don’t want to miss those gifts because your office is dark.


Always consider how you can exceed the expectations of those who encounter your organization. The next person you meet could be the person to write the check to rewrite your organization’s future.