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Lessons From an Empty Mansion


As a commuter and fundraising professional with a busy schedule, I spend a fair amount of time on the road. While music and podcasts can be effective in filling that time, a good audiobook can make me actually look forward to the drive.


The most recent book I devoured was Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. This story has strong local connections, including the mysterious Bellosguardo mansion in Santa Barbara, standing like a lonely sentinel over East Beach. And lonely it was: this property stood empty and unused for decades (although at the ready - staff were to be able to welcome the owner, the extremely reclusive Huguette Clark, with only 48 hours’ notice).


As a local resident who had often wondered about that big, empty mansion and its mysterious owner, I found the story fascinating: how does a fabulously wealthy copper heiress end up spending the last few decades – decades! – of her life living in a hospital, although perfectly healthy? Why would she choose to live in a tiny room when, as the holder of an estate worth over $300 million, she could afford to live anywhere in the world? When she owned some of the most exquisite property, with some of the best views in the world, why would she settle for a view of an ugly block wall? Where exactly did all this incredible wealth come from, and why did her surviving family members end up going to court to contest her will? And what is now happening with that beautiful empty mansion in Santa Barbara?


All are interesting questions that get (somewhat) answered in the book. But when you dig a little deeper, buried within the historical accounts and jaw-dropping anecdotes of extreme wealth, there are a surprising number of lessons to be had by professional fundraisers:


Interests can – and often do - change

A cause supported by a wealthy donor might not interest a surviving spouse, or the donor’s children or grandchildren. Just because a donor was generous with a certain organization, that generosity is not guaranteed as the family’s wealth is handed down. The causes supported by the family’s patriarch, W.A. Clark, did not interest his widow Anna or his daughter Huguette much, and their support of these causes dwindled or ended altogether after he passed. Causes supported by Huguette or Anna in their younger years failed to capture their attention – and their dollars – as they aged. Even the most ardent supporters can find that their passion for your cause has faded, or that new causes now capture their attention. They may even end up in a cash-poor situation as they age. It’s important to build bridges to others in the family, if you can, and to keep your donors (and their family members) engaged.


Capital gifts are good, but organizations (and donors) are wise to ensure
there is funding in place to pay for maintenance and operations

A large capital gift may allow an organization to purchase or construct a building, but without a substantial endowment for maintenance, repair, and future operations, the organization might fail altogether for the burden that has been placed upon it. There were a few examples of this in Empty Mansions; our local example is the Bellosguardo Foundation, which was left the Santa Barbara mansion, a small collection of Huguette’s belongings, and a very small amount of cash (not near enough for the maintenance and repairs that need to be done on the mansion). In another example, a charity funded by W.A. in Montana found itself on the brink of closure when its group home, named after a Clark son from his first marriage, ran out of operational funding. In such a situation, a donor’s generosity runs the risk of becoming an albatross for the organization that receives such largesse.


There is no such thing as a bird-in-the-hand

Huguette Clark lived in a hospital in New York for decades, although perfectly healthy. The leadership and development staff of that hospital approached her many times over the years, assuming that her residency there ensured them a sizable gift. She was, by all accounts, a very clear example of a bird-in-the-hand. But she resisted the extreme pressure to make a sizable gift to the hospital, much to the frustration of the organization.


There may be more to the story behind a donation

W.A. Clark, Huguette’s father, was keen on bulling his way into the elite social circles of New York City, populated with individuals bearing the gold-plated moniker of Aster and Carnegie and the like. Fabulously wealthy from the copper empire he had built, W.A. erected one of the world’s most expensive residences, bearing 121 rooms, complete with a fairy-tale-castle tower and massive galleries dedicated to his impressive art collection. Surely his fine taste, astonishing wealth, and philanthropic largesse would grease societal wheels and grant him the social ascent he so badly desired? It was not to be so - brash “new money” upstarts like W.A., especially those stained as he was with political scandal, were looked down upon by the “old money” that controlled these exclusive social circles. Sometimes, donors engage in philanthropy for reasons far afield of an organization’s mission, trying to gain acceptance, attention, and even notoriety for their philanthropic activity.


Sometimes philanthropy is invisible

When contesting Huguette’s will, one of her family members declared that the heiress didn’t have a charitable bone in her body. From the outside, that must have appeared to be true – she didn’t attend galas or openings, she didn’t put her name on buildings, and she didn’t appear in annual reports. Her charity was quiet, and mostly made to individuals. An intensely private person, she didn’t even appear in photographs for more than eighty of her 104 years.

It’s the donor’s money. How they choose to spend it is not up to you.

I have heard fundraisers lament profligate spending habits of their wealthy prospects. If only they dedicated the kind of money to charity they spent on lavish vacations, the refrain goes, or on automobiles, or jewelry! The good they could do! One of Huguette’s greatest loves was collecting dolls, and commissioning exquisite, hand-made dollhouses. Through the lens of the fundraiser’s lament, this was silly and wasteful, when there is so much need in the world.

But the point here is that it’s the prerogative of the wealthy to do what they want with their wealth. And they will do what makes them happy. So instead of focusing on all the money that is not going to the cause you work to support, you can make a shift in your own viewpoint instead.

Donating to a cause they believe in can make a donor feel really good. So we, as fundraisers, are providing opportunities for donors of all sizes to feel really good. Don’t worry about the dollars that got away; don’t begrudge the spending on things other than the need you wrestle with every day. It was never “your” money to begin with; instead focus on the opportunities you can provide to make a donor feel good about supporting your important work. If it resonates with them, some of that funding might start flowing your way.

 Didn't return your call?  That donor might be suspicious of you and your intentions

Especially if the only time you reach out is with an empty hand. Huguette severed nearly all ties as she grew older, including with family members she believed were only kind to her because they were after her money. Put yourself in a wealthy individual’s shoes: it’s a pretty reasonable assumption.

Your relationship with all of your donors needs to exceed your season of asking. Donors should be invited to see your programs in action, to make a personal connection with your organization and its work. When a donor is integrated, when they feel like they belong, they are more likely to give and continue giving. Don’t only pick up the phone or send an email when you are asking for something.

Alignment with mission is powerful; sentimentality trumps all

Huguette’s charity was spotty, but a common thread emerged. She supported causes named for the people she knew and loved.

To honor a young life cut short by meningitis, W.A. Clark donated land in New York to the Girl Scouts. A teenage Huguette stands near her father in the photograph as he hands over the deed to the land that was later named Camp Andrée Clark, after Huguette’s only full sibling. Years later, Huguette would similarly honor her sister with gifts to the city of Santa Barbara, helping to establish and maintain the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, which sits practically at the feet of Bellosguardo.

Rancho Alegre in Santa Barbara County started as her mother Anna’s “inland retreat” from the beach house in Santa Barbara. When Huguette inherited this oak-studded slice of the Santa Ynez Valley, she donated the property to the Boy Scouts in honor of her mother, wanting others to be able to experience the peace and beauty her mother so enjoyed there.

The reasons why donors are drawn to specific causes are not always clear to us outsiders. And in fact, sentimentality may be the long and the short of it. Therefore, getting to know your donor well, to understand their motivations before you make an ask is well worth the time and investment.

Some donors value privacy more than anything

Huguette’s quest for privacy was all-consuming. For many years, even her family members did not know where she was living. All correspondence was conducted through attorneys and trusted employees.

Sadly, when she was the victim of theft, she was further victimized by those who knew how much she valued her privacy. Those that had been charged with the safekeeping of jewelry and art threatened that her privacy would be sacrificed if she pressed her claim for proper recompense. She settled for pennies on the dollar. If you are working with a donor who holds privacy in high regard, and has requested anonymity, a simple mistake of including them on a list of donors or in your annual report could be enough reason for them to sever the relationship with you – forever.


As fundraisers, most of us have a piece that keeps working – even when we’re off the clock. I was drawn to Empty Mansions because of its connection to local history, but found some unexpected truths about fundraising as well.


Melissa Baffa is a Development Officer at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and an instructor with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at CSUCI. Her career includes work in several nonprofit organizations, as a teacher, and in biotech. She is also a Science Communication Fellow with the Ocean Exploration Trust. 


1 comment




03-21-2020 12:24 AM

This is a really terrific article. Thanks for the information. These are really helpful lessons for fundraisers.