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Will and testament

Joan Kroc won't be around to see it, but her stunning generosity to the Salvation Army could create new opportunities for the poorest of the poor. Kroc, the McDonald's heiress who died last year, left $1.5-billion to the Christian charity, officials announced this week. Her commitment to others is inspiring, and it also is a test for a charity long associated with the same humility as those it helps.

The money will pay to build dozens of community centers across the country. Half will go toward the buildings, and the other half toward an endowment to fund operations. The facilities will be modeled after a center Kroc funded in San Diego in the 1990s, with sports parks, arts centers, a modern library and worship space. The goal is to give people mired in despair an opportunity to discover their potential, be it athletic skills or creative excellence. Kroc also appreciated, those who knew her say, the importance of the Salvation Army's evangelical mission in motivating people to improve themselves.

Too many philanthropists reinvent the wheel in an attempt to burnish their own name and legacy, instead of working with charities that already have the track record and credibility to perform good deeds. Kroc became comfortable with the Salvation Army because she took the time to see how well it works and manages its money. The agency has long been credited for being responsibly run and for focusing its resources on the poor and down-and-outs' most immediate living needs. Her gift is a model for philanthropists, for it shows the value of doing one's homework before writing a check.

The challenge for the Salvation Army is to maintain its profile of serving as the charity for those with basic, immediate needs. This is a group, after all, more identified with thrift stores and Christmas kettles than with historic, 10-figure checks.

Raising the $60-million or more annually in additional funds needed to operate these community centers will be a huge undertaking. That task will be easier if the Salvation Army can show the public it hasn't forgotten what prompted Joan Kroc to bequeath it the bulk of her personal fortune. This is a charity whose old-fashioned sense of giving still has a unique place in this world.