July 30, 2014


Planned giving: Lessons from the dead

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Fred Stang

Fred Stang

Miss Thelma was a fixture at your nonprofit for 15 years. In her 80's, she had more energy than most and was willing to volunteer for any job. Without being asked, she contributed $1,000 a year and gave $5,000 for the capital campaign. Everyone loved her. Miss Thelma died last year and left her entire estate of $2 million to her college. Bless her heart.

Her college? Why not to your nonprofit? Easy - her college built a different type of relationship with her, earned her trust and asked her. You didn't.

It's time to make some changes.

Get past your fears

Estate or planned gifts can appear complicated, and worst of all, you think they involve discussions about death. 

Miss Thelma was no different than most deferred donors (those who put a charity in their estate plans); she contributed to a nonprofit through her will. 

It's simple to do. And like most of your donors, she was advised by her estate attorney, accountant and financial planner every step of the way. 

The college's planned-giving officer never once talked about death, but she talked a great deal about the impact Miss Thelma's contribution could have on future students, and she asked Miss Thelma to consider putting the college in her will.

You can do everything the college did. It's not about giving vehicles. The professional advisors can work out the vehicles. 

It's about building a relationship. Death is not the subject - impact is. Your job is to ask. 

Create the context

The college cultivated Miss Thelma in the context of a deferred donor with benefits beyond her lifetime. 

Though she was a donor to your organization, Miss Thelma's context was limited to being a volunteer.

It's your job to uncover the reason a donor gives to you and to create the context where the donor recognizes her potential as a deferred donor.

Put in the time 

Miss Thelma contemplated the estate gift for years before implementing her bequest. 

The college's development office had regular contact with her for more than 15 years and from those conversations, and a little bit of research, determined she was a good planned-giving prospect. 

Your organization is lucky if it has a dedicated fundraiser, and with the need to raise annual funds, plan events and write grants, adding one more development function can seem overwhelming. 

But spending time with your best donors is efficient and worth the effort. 

Consider Miss Thelma. The college spent 30 hours with her and got $2 million, or about $67,000 per hour. 

Making it manageable is the key. Identify five donors to meet in person at least once a year. 

Bring them up to date on your organization's successes and challenges, listen to their feedback and learn more about their lives. 

Keep good records of the conversations and look for opportunities to engage the donors to a greater degree in the work of the organization, including making the organization a part of their estate plan. 

Continue meeting with those five donors each year and add five additional donors each year. Be patient - this could take a while.

Be worthy of the gift 

Miss Thelma wouldn't make a major gift to her college if she didn't trust it. The college consistently thanked her for gifts in a timely fashion, often with handwritten notes. 

She's met the President and respects his vision. She's proud that her college looks to the future and adapts to a changing world while still remaining true to its mission. 

And though she would never be considered a "big shot," she was always treated like one. 

When was the last time you took a critical look at your organization? 

Are you a stable, solid entity that could be trusted for the long haul? Do you treat your donors with respect or as a check? Are you effective in meeting your mission? In the end, is your organization a good investment in the future and worthy of a donor's faith and trust today?

Miss Thelma was the best envelope-stuffer, phone-answerer you ever had, and she loved your agency. She really did.

But you limited her role in its success to the envelopes in front of her today, and not the role she could play in its future.

Miss Thelma never volunteered for her college, but they provided her with a context to dream and consider her impact on the world beyond her lifetime. 

They cultivated and asked. You didn't.

Miss Thelma left her estate to her college, but she left you with some valuable lessons.

Fred Stang is an associate with moss+ross, a strategic development consulting firm based in the Triangle. Fred has more than 30 years experience working in nonprofits, including 16 years at the Triangle Community Foundation. He recently presented a webinar through the NC Center for Nonprofits on starting a planned-giving program.

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