In Remembrance of Robert F. Sharpe, Jr. By John Jensen

Posted by kturner on Feb 15, 2022 02:13:06 PM

Robert F. Sharpe, Jr. passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on February 4, 2022.

He was a dynamic, legendary, larger-than-life figure within the planned giving community.  He was constantly speaking on any number of planned giving and charitable giving topics at conferences around the country.  Nearly every ACGA and NACGP conference had Robert speaking on one topic or another. 

He shared his extensive research findings, spoke about unusual topics such as “Affluenza:  Prevention and Treatment” or “the Death of Planning Giving…Long Live Planned Giving”, predicted things that frequently became obvious years later and was often the first to identify the real implications of new tax laws or changing demographics.

Most people who heard him once always wanted to hear him again, regardless of what the topic might be.  They knew that they would learn something new, as well as enjoy his talk, his unpredictable, but fascinating side tangents and frequent bad jokes and worse puns. 

If you were fortunate to be able to listen to Robert give the same talk during consecutive sessions, you would inevitably find that you learned something different at each one.  What most people never realized was that this was partly because he could not remember what he shared earlier and would continuously ad-lib. 

He was an intellectual deep thinker who had an unquenchable, almost obsessive interest in learning about nearly everything.  He had a unique ability to look at things from a 30,000-foot perspective.  From this level, he would identify 5 or 6 things that appeared to most to be unrelated, then dig deeply into the data and find out what the relationship was.  Doing so, he inevitably figured out what the implications were for donors and the planned giving community.

Robert was an attorney by early training, but he was so much more.

His father Robert Sharpe, Sr. created a planned giving consulting and marketing firm back in 1963.  As his father moved into retirement, Robert Jr. took over the helm and created a different type of firm. 

I knew Robert for over 30 years.  He was a good friend that I could and did talk with just about anything and everything.  If you talked as frequently as I did with him, he would inevitably bring up all sorts of topics. 

A call that should have taken 2 minutes to ask if a number should be a 5 or 7 always seemed to run an hour or two as we talked about whatever topic had caught his interest. 

Robert brought me on as a planned giving consultant with his firm and we worked closely together for more than 13 years.  He was a teacher, a mentor, and a close friend.

Robert was the first to work with Mike Litt at Metromail back in the late 1980s.  They came up with a way for charities to obtain age data that could be overlaid with donor lists to identify those who were of the most probable age for planned giving.  While standard today, this was ground-breaking at the time.  This became the core of what he focused on to allow charities to talk with donors at the right age and stage of life. 

His data-driven research examining data from some 100,000 estates looking at age of will, age of death and age at last gift gave us enormous statistical advantages.  It also allowed him to create what is now widely known as the “Sharpe Matrix” designed to simplify what types of donors are most apt to make various types of testamentary and lifetime gifts. 

We now know that the final and operative will, on average, was signed some 5 years prior to death, that most donors continued to give even after signing the final will and even what age a bequest donor commonly passed away.  He found that residual gifts were 5-20 times larger than specific dollar gifts and so much more. 

His deep dives into estate giving from a wide range of large and small charities gave him insights that no one else had. 

It was a massive amount of work, but he loved doing it.  If Robert was anything, he was a workaholic who wanted first to learn.  Just as importantly, he constantly shared much of what he learned with the charitable and gift planning community. 

One of my favorite stories about working with Robert was when he had just completed a deep dive study into the demographics and giving of a large, direct mail-based charity in NYC and was about to present the results.  Since I had a strong direct-mail background, he asked me to sit in on his presentation to the senior management of the group.  I took a train up from Washington Sunday night for a 9 am Monday morning presentation.

Robert sent me a copy of his 200-slide deck just before boarding a 7 pm flight from Memphis.  By then, I was in New York and skimmed what he intended to present during his 90-minute talk.  He left Memphis, flew to NYC, circled twice, and landed in Detroit.  NY had received some 7 inches of rain that day, much of the subway system was shut down and nothing was functioning—including the airports. 

At 11:30 pm I got a call telling me that there was no way he could get to NY by 9 am, so I would be doing the presentation.  I scurried to prepare what was now my presentation with no other information.

I went to the charity and explained that while I knew a lot about planned giving, particularly with direct mail-based charities, I had not participated in this study.  They were quite understanding.  Many of the executives joined via a conference call for the presentation due to the subway flooding.

I started the presentation and was on slide 120 when Robert broke into the conference call and said: “I just got into LaGuardia and I’m in a cab on the way in.  What slide are you on?”  He then proceeded to continue the slide presentation from the back of the cab as I advanced the slides. 

At this point, I realized that he had made changes to his talk from 11:30 pm until then.  At slide 153, he suggested that we take a 10-minute break.  His cab had just arrived, and he would be upstairs in a few minutes to complete the presentation.  Working with Robert was always interesting, never predictable, and always fun.

To know Robert was to hear an endless stream of jokes, really bad puns, and seemingly random bits of interesting trivia. 

Robert didn’t have a mean bone in his body.  He was loyal and loving to his family. He loved his girls and always looked out for them, frequently bragging about their latest accomplishments. 

As a friend and employer, he always found ways to look out for me and my colleagues, always encouraging, teaching, and looking to lift our spirits.  He could be exasperating trying to keep up with, then he would crack another bad joke.  We would laugh and then go on.  He always took our critiques well, argued with us and then made whatever change was needed. 

At one conference, the chair explained that Robert asked for any last-minute advice before going on to the podium.  The chairman said, “Just open your mouth and start talking.”  Then he went on to dazzle the 500 participants with his intellect and breadth of understanding.

He loved to tell stories and dig up obscure facts to bring his data points alive and he did it well. 

Robert was frequently quoted in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  He was a regular contributor and chair of the Trusts & Estates editorial advisory board philanthropy committee.  He was also a trusted voice for philanthropy in the media and in the halls and committee rooms of Congress.  While much of this was low-key and low-profile, it was frequent and effective. 

Susan Lipp, Editor-in-chief of Trusts & Estates magazine summed it up well in a tribute to him, “He was a person of honor and integrity—a real 'mensch.'  And he will be missed.”

He certainly will be missed by all of us that knew him, worked with him and were fortunate enough to learn from him.  I will miss him as a friend, a colleague and just an all-around good guy.

John Jensen is currently the Director of Gift Planning at the Washington National Cathedral and was previously a planned giving consultant with the Sharpe Group from 2006 through 2021.  He can be reached at

Robert Sharpe’s obituary can be found here.  A video of his funeral and family stories will also be available on this site. 


Topics: In Remembrance