All About Estates

Gifts of Real Estate, with restrictions

Early in my charitable planning career my employer was offered a donation of islands on Georgian Bay.  Surrounding the 100-year-old family cottage were sheds, cabins and boat houses.  The donors had a vision: it would be a children’s camp.

It was a stunning property.  Valuable, despite the sagging, mouse-infested buildings.  But this gift by will was contingent and restricted.  It would be a children’s camp, or nothing at all.  The gift never happened.

Looking back, I feel the donors’ palpable regret and disappointment.  They were in the late 70s.  They loved those islands.  It was unbearable to see the cottage sold, torn down, desecrated.

The charity, however, had no need of the islands or a camp.  It had no funds to develop or operate the facility.  We suggested, tentatively, that it could be sold and the funds used for the charity’s core mission.  Regrettably, the donors thought we were rude and greedy.

Real Estate Restricted to Use

Since that first experience, I have met a number of well-intention donors with similar dreams.  What dreams?  A Victorian rooming house, well, mansion, for a humane homeless shelter.  An artist’s cottage for a writer’s retreat. A country estate for a university campus.  A farm for an animal sanctuary.  A heritage house for a museum.

These donors were all deeply invested in their vision and property.  As a result, they have a hard time  understanding the practical issues for the receiving charity.  Sometimes the charity already exists, and, of course, has other programs.  Sometimes a new charity had to be created to carry out the purposes.  Either way, the operational challenges were significant.

All property donations require a contingency plan.  During the planning process, it’s best to address the monetary value of the property and the core mission of the charity.  This discussion is essential, and just the start.

Due Diligence Questions

Here’s some practical questions for donors, gift planners, lawyers and charities to consider:

  1. What is best charity to hold the property and carry out the intended purpose?
  2. How will ongoing programs be funded?
  3. What are the zoning issues?
  4. Are there capital improvement costs?
  5. How much are taxes, insurance, programs, and maintenance?
  6. What happens after the first 20 years?  Who will run the programs? Will there be a need?
  7. Is there any plan to make additional donations, in addition to the real estate?
  8. Is there a gift agreement?  If so, does it include a variation of purpose clause so the property can be sold?
  9. If the property is sold, how will the funds be used?

Good charitable estate planning involving real estate starts with frank discussion.  It’s important to recognize the cost and responsibility associated with big dreams and special properties.


About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with over 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.


  1. Elena hoffstein

    August 17, 2023 - 1:11 pm

    Great article and on point. As always

  2. Thomas McCauley

    August 20, 2023 - 8:44 am

    EXCELLENT. Thanks for this Malcolm.

    While one does applaud the deep commitment of the donor it is important that the recipient charity “stick to its knitting”. #1 is the most (only?) important question to my way of thinking for your former employer to consider.

    #1 is an easy question to answer for certain but a challenge in how to share that message respectfully. All of the questions which follow are questions for another potential recipient charity?

    Questions which bubble up

    Honouring the deep commitment of the potential donor, is there an opportunity to do some research to prepare a “starter list” (not a recommendation!) of potential recipient charities?

    Is there an opportunity for your former employer to collaborate with a potential recipient for common good?

    Thanks again for this excellent example

    • Malcolm Burrows

      September 5, 2023 - 6:02 pm

      Hi Tom – I think it is always good practice for charities to educate donors, provide options, and for charities to collaborate. It really depends on the situation and the donor. Thanks for your thoughts, Malcolm

  3. David S Rose

    August 23, 2023 - 2:20 pm

    It’s never easy for an advisor when philanthropic vision comes crashing up against the pragmatic reality that properties need to be carried financially and maintained, which takes time, energy, money and sometimes hard physical work.

    David S. Rose P. Ag.

    • Malcolm Burrows

      September 5, 2023 - 6:00 pm

      David – Well said. The devil is definitely in the details with gifts of real estate! Thanks for commenting. Malcolm

  4. Julie

    September 1, 2023 - 8:35 pm

    Great article. There is so much to think about!

    • Malcolm Burrows

      September 5, 2023 - 2:39 pm

      Julie – Thanks for your feedback. I’m glad the article was helpful. Malcolm

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