That Their Wishes May Be Carried Out: Donor Forms and Other Paperwork In Church Collections

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I suspect that many people in the church today do not understand the importance of paperwork such as deeds of gift, releases and transfers of copyright forms. For some reason we think such things are unnecessary in a church environment. In truth, such things are nothing more than good stewardship. Such paperwork ensures that donations are available for research or other use and that such use cannot be curtailed by some person with a different agenda than the church and donor. These records also help identify the origins of items in a collection, becoming additional sources of information for researchers. Forms help communicate the thoughts, feelings and intent of both donors and the church at the time of the donation. Forms that document items in a collection can save a lot of unnecessary trouble, and can help keep well meaning folk from making mistakes they may live to regret. Examples forthcoming.

I am not, at present, able give names in these instances, but since they are just samples of things that happen frequently in the archives/museum/history world, just let them serve as illustrations of possible scenarios. Each of these has happened, but it is enough for the reader to imagine that they might have happened. Accept them as you will or will not, but they are all cases of which I am personally familiar.

1) A supporter of a historical institution gave a portrait of her ancestor to the institution on the condition that it be displayed in a public area. Later, a relative of hers claimed that the portrait had only been loaned to the institution and that it rightfully belonged to him, as he was her heir. (It was valuable, and this is the world of Ebay and auctions.) The institution fortunately had a donation form signed by the donor and could prove ownership. The wishes of the donor were carried out and the portrait remained. Ebay’s loss was the institution’s gain.

2) A series of portraits was donated to an institution. They somehow ended up in private hands and surfaced some years later in other institutions. The original institution had no donor forms. The portraits were never returned to the place that the original donors had intended for them to reside. The wishes of the donors could not be carried out.

3) A woman told the story of her faith conversion to an oral history interviewer. She bared her soul, telling of her battles with addiction and depression. The interview was very important to her because she wanted others to hear her testimony and perhaps learn from it. Hers was a strong witness and she hoped that perhaps it would even be part of a published work. She was, however, terminally ill. After her death, a sibling claimed that the interviewer did not have a right to make the story available to the public, either for publication or research. The sibling was embarrassed by the story. There was a problem with the release, so the interviewer will not use this powerful witness in the manner that was intended. Her wishes were not carried out

4) There are boxes and shelves of documents, photographs, audio tapes and objects in almost every historical institution where I have worked. In some cases the items have little meaning because no one knows what they are or where they came from. If we don’t know the source of items in our historical collections, we might miss some of their historical value. Additionally, we may not be able to use them as the donor wished because we do not have copyright or proof of ownership. In this world of litigation, we must be careful if we cannot prove our rights. The wishes of the donors may not be carried out.

5) An organization accepted an item from a donor who did not want to sign a donor agreement. It was later found that there was an argument in the family of the donor about where this item should be placed. The donor did not want to let anyone in the family know he was the one who had given it away. Apart from the fact that the receiving organization has become part of a family quarrel to which it should not be party, it cannot prove ownership of the item and could lose it to a family member or someone else at any time. What right does this organization have to the item? There is a difference of opinion among its members, but I would argue none. If a donor is unwilling to make an open gift of something, or in the case of an anonymous gift at least provide documentation of the gift in case it should later be needed, I feel it should be graciously refused.

These are just some of the reasons for obtaining and maintaining proper releases and donor agreements when accepting gifts of any kind. It is a matter of stewardship, as I said. A small amount of effort will make sure that the gift of an individual is used to its fullest value. The trick, of course, is persuading members of a church of that necessity. Maybe it would be best to start with discussing their wishes in regards to their gifts, then discussing how best to ensure that those wishes are carried out. It just might include paperwork.

Jim Havron


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