Remembering Robert Sharpe, Jr.

My Giving USA Foundation colleagues and Foundation subscribers will share in my sadness of the sudden and untimely death of Robert Sharpe, Jr. Robert died suddenly on Thursday morning, 3 February at his home in Memphis, Tennessee.  A former Giving USA Foundation board member, Robert was a recognized authority, speaker, and teacher in the field of charitable gift planning.

Robert was the CEO of Encore and served as the philanthropy editorial board of Trusts & Estates magazine.  He was the recipient of the CASE Crystal Apple award for excellence in teaching and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Philanthropic Planning Group of Greater New York, the David M. Donaldson Distinguished Service award from the Planned Giving Group of New England and was inducted to the CGA Gift Planning Hall of Fame.

The breadth and depth of Robert’s knowledge in the most complex area of development was unsurpassed.

The sheer volume of charitable gift planning information that he could distill to another person in an hour’s time was remarkable.  I regularly wished after a long call with Robert that I could have recorded our call to fully capture all the information he had dispensed about a particular subject – IRS bequest data, inflation, complex planned gifts, the economy, consulting, etc.  

Importantly, Robert will also be remembered for the number of individuals in the gift planning field he mentored and to whom he sacrificially gave his time, knowledge, and encouragement.  Thankfully, I was amongst the number of those with whom he spent time – even though our firms were competitors.

By 2018, I had been in the gift planning field for sixteen years; however, Robert and I had never met.  In late summer of that year, I called Robert’s office to ask if he would give me fifteen minutes of his time.  He gave me an hour and fifteen minutes that day.  A few months later I flew to Memphis to meet Robert for the first time, and we spent nearly five hours together discussing the charitable gift planning field.  What quickly became apparent to me was Robert’s hunger for data and his remarkable skill for analyzing and interpreting data for his clients and the whole of the charitable gift planning field.  But I was particularly struck with Robert’s linear thinking as he constantly connected dots and was thinking about clients’ charitable gift planning programs decades down the proverbial road.

Robert and I continued our regular calls, and I knew to block at least an hour on my calendar for each meeting.  He was excited about Encore and the projects on which he and his colleagues were working. Robert had more important work to do for clients and more to contribute to the charitable gift planning field. 

As I reflect on our conversations, he peppered his comments with a bit of pessimism about the future of charitable gift planning.  Robert worried that many nonprofit organizations failed to see and address some of the hazards on the horizon, and his list of concerns was rather long: a “flat” stock market and subsequent decline in IRA values, the national debt, the impact of increased life expectancy on bequests, lack of proper donor stewardship, generational differences regarding philanthropy and donor engagement, etc.  His eyes were set on the state of charitable gift planning decades from now and worried that the third sector and its consultants suffer from too much short-term and “pie in the sky” thinking.  Wise words. 

Lastly, Robert was intrigued by Heaton Smith’s legacy and charitable estate planning results.  He needed proof that our reported results for clients were “real” and not based on pure expectancy income or marketing tricks.  Once Robert was satisfied with our results, he gave Heaton Smith a compliment that I will always remember, “Heaton Smith is in a corner all by itself.  You and your consultants work with a sub-set of donors and produce results that are unmatched.”  Robert’s compliment meant a lot in 2019, but it means more still today. 

Robert loved gift planning, his clients, and tax law, but he often spoke of his affection for his family, including his late father.  Like his father’s, Robert’s work was cut short by his untimely death.  But, we recognize and remember the important contributions he made to charitable gift planning and celebrate the rich legacy that his mind and his work left the field of philanthropy.


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