A Remembrance of Charles W. Collier

Posted by Peter K. Kimball on Aug 15, 2018 7:30:00 AM

Charles W. Collier died on August 2, 2018 in Dublin, NH.  He was 70 years old.

A little more than 30 years ago, I began to work with Charlie in the Planned Giving Office at Harvard University.  I had been the director of development of a small independent day school in Rhode Island. During the summer of 1987, I attended a three-day conference on planned giving for independent school directors of development.  Charlie was the teacher.  For those three days, about a dozen of us immersed ourselves in all the issues then surrounding what was known as deferred giving.  Charlie was almost hypnotic in his presentation.  His ability to make the subject come to life captured me.  I would later come to learn that he captured the attention of many others as well. 

During the late winter of 1988, Charlie called me and announced that he was looking to expand the planned giving operation at Harvard College and encouraged me to apply for a job opening.  When Harvard calls, you take notice.  When Charlie Collier calls, you really take notice.  In August 1988, I came to work with Charlie and for Harvard.  For almost 25 years, Charlie was a mentor to me—indeed to many of us who understood the impact he was making on philanthropy.

Charlie began his career at Harvard in 1986 as director of planned giving.  Before working at Harvard, he raised money for Phillips Academy, Andover, and for Brown and Princeton Universities.  Charlie was a graduate of Andover, earned a bachelor’s degree in religion from Dartmouth and a master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.  I always felt the Divinity School angle gave him a leg up over the rest of us—a sort of “credibility factor” none of the rest of us could match.

There were a number of remarkable characteristics about Charlie that ensured his success in our world of planned giving. 

First, he could sell milk to a cow.  His persuasive abilities were legendary.  He could make anyone feel really good about giving twice what they initially had thought they could give.

 Second, he was both fearless and relentless.  Like no other, he could find a way into the living room or the office of Harvard’s most challenging donors and prospects.  Several years ago, I recall that he managed to schedule a face-to-face meeting with the then president of Harvard, Larry Summers.  Not long after that first meeting, Charlie and President Summers went to a Red Sox baseball game.  Can you imagine nine innings with Charlie? 


At a summer staff conference several weeks later, President Summers spoke to the assembled crowd of development staff that he was grateful for all we (fundraisers) did for Harvard but singled out Charlie, making specific reference to their earlier meetings.  President Summers said —and I’ll never forget this—that he had been “Collier-ized.”  Needless to say, the audience clapped riotously because all of us knew exactly what he meant. 

And finally, Charlie had the ability to reinvent himself over and over again.  Toward the end of his career at Harvard, Charlie felt a calling to dig deeper into the complex family relationship issues surrounding wealth. He began his study of family systems theory and became a pioneer of an emerging field of philanthropic advising to families.

His iconic book, Wealth in Families, was the result of his work with hundreds of Harvard families who helped Charlie to formulate his own philosophy about how family members interact (or not) and the barriers that can arise with dysfunctional families. He came to realize that parents wanted to transfer values as well as assets to their children and their greatest fear was that wealth would be detrimental to future generations.

 Charlie facilitated delicate discussions around challenging questions like:

  • What’s really important to you? What are your core values?
  • What amount of financial inheritance do you want to leave your children and grandchildren?  How wealthy do you want them to become?
  • What, if anything, will you tell your children about your estate plan and their inheritance? How do you help manage the impact of wealth on your children?
  • What bearing do you want to have on society? How do you wish to be remembered? 

He became a nationally recognized expert in planned giving and family philanthropy, working with individuals and families to help them shape their giving, make tax-wise gift decisions and deal with family issues surrounding financial wealth and legacy.  By confronting these and other “essential questions,” he opened the eyes of these individuals and families, helping them to understand that wealth is not just financial capital.  It’s human capital, intellectual capital, and social capital, as well. 

In 2011 Charlie, disclosed publicly that he had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which accelerated his retirement from Harvard.  Typical of Charlie, he confronted his certain future by working with Cure Alzheimer’s Fund to help support research.  In recognition of his life’s accomplishment, he was honored with awards from Andover, Harvard Divinity School, and Family Wealth Report.  In 2012, he was awarded the prestigious Harvard Medal in recognition of his extraordinary service to the University. 

In a 2013 interview with the Boston Globe, Charlie said, “Find your passion and turn it into work. Lead your own life while staying connected to family.  Find out for yourself what is the meaning in life.  Our time here is short; the only response is gratitude.” 

Words to live by!


Topics: Obituaries