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Blog #2: Identifying Planned Gifts: how and when to ask the right questions

I’ll call her Isobel. She was a young sounding senior and very enthusiastic when I phoned to thank her for a recent gift. I’d just started in planned giving and here was a prospect actually enjoying my call and accepting an offer to deliver her receipt. I quickly booked the visit.

And it didn’t disappoint. Her beautiful apartment overlooked a majestic canyon with a river actually running through it. We sipped Earl Grey from good china and she chatted away about growing up in a large northern family, her eclectic life in southern Ontario and, since her husband’s death, of feeling able to indulge her artistic gifts, cultural pleasures, to travel and give back. She was 82 and things, she said, had never been better.

Respectful of her recent loss, I didn’t want to overwhelm Isobel with too much information. I left behind the receipt, a handwritten thank you note and a slim brochure on breakthroughs in research. A few months later I followed up with a seasonal card and early the next year sent a personal invitation to a large event where I had an opportunity to introduce her to the keynote speaker and local VIPs. We talked about the importance of my charity’s work and the need to increase the pace of research with gifts like the one from her late husband’s estate. Isobel adored the recognition.

What I know now is that while every planned giving officer must learn to steward both gifts and donors gracefully, sometimes you need to tackle the hard part up front. So, with Isobel in mind, and after years more experience, here are four simple tips for the newbie planned giving officer:

  1. Don’t be afraid of probing questions

“Go after EXACTLY what you want – not what you want. For you never get anything but the things you EXACTLY wanted.” Alan Gregg, philanthropist, former Director, Rockefeller Foundation.

Even when you don’t know what your donor is capable of giving, and with simple legacy gifts this is often the case, it’s important to zero in early on the level of commitment to your charity’s mission. Your prospect may care about many causes but as a planned giving officer you need to establish the level of passion for the particular work of your charity. Be precise. Ask your prospect to rate the feeling on a scale of 1 to 5. Discover how that feeling compares with support for other charities including, if you can, by approximate gift amount per annum. Is there a particular aspect of your mission that your prospect is drawn to? Is there something he feels is missing from your programs or services that’s of special interest? What exactly is it about your particular charity ‘s way of addressing your mission that is so attractive to your donor?

  1. Steward donors, not gifts

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Sir Winston Churchill.

For every prospect who cares passionately for your cause and responds well to your updates on progress, there is another who can’t remember anything about your carefully chosen mail pieces or much of what was said on your last visit. And if, while hunting for your latest appeal, they proceed to rummage through a stack of unopened charity mail piled high on the coffee table you can be certain their interest in text-based content has waned – if it was ever there.

At the earliest opportunity learn how your prospect likes to receive information. Not everyone is a data junkie. Maybe she likes attending events where she can meet others; or he likes to sit on panels, listen to lectures or watch slides or videos, rather than read about it at home. But also be alert for the gadfly. If your prospect seems most happy simply meeting you and other people, information optional, it may be time to talk about volunteering or other ways to engage with your charity’s mission. Stewardship has many faces. As a planned giving officer your job is to find the right stewardship vehicle and, in the short-term, you might not be the driver.

  1. Listen strategically; ask directly.

“In Silicon Valley we say if you haven’t tried something and failed, and actually learned something from that failure, then why would I want to work with you?” Pierre Omidyar, founder E-Bay.

Over lunch, on my next visit, I asked Isobel if she would like to discuss how she could leave a legacy to support research for the disease that had prematurely ended her late husband’s life. It was my first ever ask for a planned gift and she immediately declined. Yes, she left a door open to future solicitation but this timing, she felt, wasn’t quite right. I was crushed. After her enthusiasm for the research event and very positive responses to all my probing questions, after accepting my invitation to lunch to discuss how she could help our charity more, I had felt truly hopeful. Today, I’d be better prepared for a “No.”

Given that the door had been left open to a future gift, I recovered and continued to send Isobel occasional updates and invitations to local events. At year’s end I telephoned with my usual seasonal greeting and was surprised when someone other than Isobel answered. Brad, let’s call him, introduced himself as her stepson. Isobel had reluctantly moved back up north to live with one of her own children because, after almost three years of asking her to move, Brad had finally sold the apartment and when I called happened to be there with an evaluator assessing his father’s antiques. As I soon discovered, Isobel had no assets of her own and, even more troubling, apparently nowhere else to go.

  1. Do your research; trust your gut.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest.

Assessing a prospect’s ability to make a planned gift rests on many things and hunches are among them – at least in the early stages of the relationship. Some prospects are open and transparent and so help you in your assessments. Others, like Isobel, dodge, weave and evade whenever conversation veers towards finances, gift types or amounts. And so, for both your sakes, having listened carefully as the relationship built, you will now need to take control of the conversation and directly discuss sensitive matters.

On the financial side, your questions will focus on your donor’s feelings about reducing taxes now or later through the estate. Try to understand if your donor is interested in generating another income stream along with a gift (annuity) or feels that reducing probate fees will be better for her beneficiaries. And while it’s true that most planned giving donors give to leave a legacy and make a difference, if there is zero interest in the financial ramifications of a planned gift – for the estate and for the family – an experienced planned giving officer turns her thoughts to the prospect’s awareness of her fiscal realities. Has she discussed the details of her estate with her advisors? Is he comfortable with his current estate plan? Does her estate plan address her desire to give back in a way that is meaningful for her?

In planned giving, even if the gift is secured the elephant in the room demands to know if it will be realized. In Isobel’s case a planned gift in her will was never within her grasp. For others, a good intention can evaporate with time because in a volatile economy financial circumstances can turn on a dime. That said, you must do your due diligence. If your charity is serious about planned giving, be sure it can support you with adequate prospect research and sufficient budget for the basic tools of the researcher’s trade – especially good real estate information.

While it’s true that I was an eager newbie, and when I met Isobel property registries weren’t easily accessible, at that time my charity was not focused on prospect research. I had done a modest Google search (no results) and with my manager’s blessing sallied forth with very little to go on.

Today it would be a different story. Data is everywhere. Google searches, land and property registries, SEDI and innumerable other directories are available online, most accessible for a fee. And even though you know that research will be only a small part of your prospecting process, when put together with your carefully devised questions and sheer gut instinct, today even a newbie can be in a position to secure worthwhile planned gifts from donors who really do have the capacity to leave a lasting legacy.

Blog #1: Behaving charitably – some tips for business, by Janet Kranz ( Hilborn e-News, 2014)

Barely a day goes by when I don’t see an outpouring of love from the business community to the non-profit world. You know the kind of thing I mean: “What can charities learn from big (or small) business?” “Ten business strategies for taking your charity to the next level.” “How to modernize philanthropy, by Europe’s top investment banker.” “Key lessons for emerging charities from five top CEOs.” And a recent favourite:  “Special Offer: Save 15% on insight into the latest fundraising insight.”

On my most cynical days I admit to finding some blasts distasteful. Call me old fashioned but I want my voluntary sector’s fundraising efforts to aim higher, see farther and be more socially and environmentally ambitious than a well developed business plan.

And given the continuing global economic meltdown, the disappearance of any shred of job security anywhere on the planet and the arrival of a new generation of workers with a powerful sense of what some refer to as “entitlement,” I have to wonder if non-profits are serving the future needs of our fragile sector well, with this continuing pro-business, for-profit, commercial drum-roll.

Happily I see the winds of change already at work. Exciting and innovative new fundraising paradigms are clearly visible on the horizon and ambitious non-profits are moving towards them, determined to change the way charities “do business.”

You can see it in the micro-financing sector and especially with charities like Kiva. Billing itself as “the world’s first online lending platform connecting online lenders to entrepreneurs,” organizations like Kiva are taking a bold step back from fundraising norms and using it’s leverage to cement the donor-beneficiary partnership, rather than the one between the charity and the donor.

This is an exciting move. It not only makes for a less “controlling” relationship between charity and donor, but it also carves out a new space where a charity’s curatorial skills are key to shaping the gift. In other words, at organizations like Kiva, fundraising is less about The Ask and managing the donor’s money, and more about bringing the donor into direct contact with the beneficiary to stimulate the most generous gift possible.

With efforts like these already in evidence, I have to ask if it’s time charities began to share more insights with the business media to benefit the many companies now floundering in turbulent commercial seas?

For me, the writing is on the wall. So I’d like to pitch in by suggesting five lessons from the voluntary sector to help business better adjust to the needs of an openly sourced, socially networked and increasingly more compassionate world:

  1. Be relevant.

Whatever product or service your business is delivering, can you be sure there is a real and important need for it? Can you prove it? Charities routinely do that. Their missions must address tangible, identifiable problems in the community or the charity will fail. What do industries see when they look at their offerings – beautiful, useful, sustainable, things? Or stuff that harms people and clogs up the planet?

  1. Be kind.

It’s never helpful to so confuse your clients they no longer understand your nature or purpose. A charity’s mission must be clear and unequivocal. That way all the stakeholders – clients, staff, directors, funders and volunteers – understand the mission goals and objectives and over time work together for improvements. Telecom companies, in particular, please take note. It is a kindness to not hinder customers in their efforts to understand the terms, conditions and pitfalls of doing business with you.

  1. Be accountable

Charities routinely share knowledge, seek transparency, are accountable and reduce collective risks by cooperating with umbrella groups to better manage their big sectoral issues. Corporations routinely shy away from transparency. If they did not, could we expect commercial disasters like those at Bhopal in 1984 or in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to be cleaned up faster and more equitably? Even better, using a non-profit mindset, could industries susceptible to wreaking havoc, better manage that risk by openly cooperating and sharing intelligence? Can these industries seek to do this so transparently they actually engage the public trust?

  1. Pay it forward

As of 2011 there were 12.5 million volunteers in Canada recording (in 2007), around 2.1 billion volunteer hours. I’ll venture a guess that a vast number of those volunteers work in and for business. But how many of those company employers invest directly in their communities or do business according to a set of equitable values? Imagine Canada records just over 100 companies registered with their national Caring Companies program. In 2010, Canada’s business registry contained just over 2.2 million names.

  1. Seek the greater good

“There is a crack, a crack in everything.” Charities, as even Leonard Cohen knows, have their shameful moments. But the intent to do good things is built into a charity’s DNA. If industry followed this lead could they increase their contributions to the greater good and still manage their bottom lines? The answer is yes. And for easy proof check out how countries like Norway or Brazil approach sustainability and revenue sharing in the management of their energy sectors.
Business is tough. It can always be improved and needs perpetual monitoring. Every few years we see revisions to a new ISO series of international standards for corporate quality management. But, isn’t that the point? To quote Leonard’s Anthem again, “that’s how the light gets in.”
Charities prove time and again that they are fearless in seeking the light and people in societies the world over benefit from their drive, selfless enthusiasm and determination to make a lasting, positive difference wherever they operate. I think it’s an impulse we need to encourage in business to help it prepare for the huge challenges facing our changing world and it’s turbulent global economy.

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