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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Planning, Patience, and Prize!

10 steps to a better gift-planning program

by Larry Stelter

Every year, 85 percent of Americans make gifts to charity, a rate unequaled by any country in the world. Yet despite our lifetime patterns of generosity, fewer than 10 percent of us leave charitable gifts at our death. Therein lies the challenge of every gift planner: how to turn annual givers into people willing to make gifts from their estates.

Whether your gift planning program is nonexistent or has been in place for years, use the following 10-point guide to assess your situation and to prioritize your next steps. 

1) Set goals and a timeline. Building a successful planned giving program is a long-term endeavor, but by setting clear expectations now you can get results. For the short term, identify non-financial ways to assess your progress. These might include the number of contacts you make with donors (in person, by phone, by mail, or via e-mail), the number of new prospects added to your database, attendance at special events, the growth of your recognition society, or how often you promote gift planning in your publications. Set a timeframe for accomplishing each goal.

2) Obtain board buy-in and budget approval. Your board has a paramount obligation to see that your mission thrives. If you make them partners in the forward-thinking work of planned giving, they can help clear away obstacles in your path. In addition to involving board members in goal-setting, present them with a proposed budget of expenses. Typical line items include printing, postage, Web site development, training, dues, travel, consulting, donor cultivation, and donor recognition.

3) Create gift acceptance policies and procedures. Don’t wait until someone offers you a vacation property in Florida to determine which types of gifts you will accept. Establish a gift acceptance committee to set guidelines and to outline procedures your team will follow in accepting each gift. Establishing an endowment provides donors confidence in your organization’s long-term viability. This requires establishing a mechanism to hold and manage long-term gifts, along with written endowment investment and spending policies and approved language for communicating these policies to donors.

4) Establish a list of prospects. As straightforward as it seems, identifying your prospect list requires careful attention. Focusing your efforts on fine-tuning your list will save dollars and time at every step. My rule is this: A planned giving prospect is anyone who has made more than two gifts of any size to your organization. You can further segment your list based on factors such as age, consistency of giving, wealth rating, and other criteria specific to your organization.

5) Create a recognition society. Build a sense of community among your donors and elevate the profile of your planned givers by creating a special society in recognition of their achievement. I suggest contacting donors within 24 hours of learning that a planned gift has been made, to thank them and to set up a personal visit. Within 48 hours, you should mail a written thank-you, along with materials explaining your recognition group and an invitation to join. Within one week, the donor should receive a personal thank-you from your organization’s president and board chair. At least once a year, society members should be invited to a special event or luncheon in their honor.

6) Develop a planned giving Web presence. Adding planned giving information to your organization’s Web site is the new standard. Increasingly, donors express a preference for evaluating charities and researching gift options in the privacy of their own homes at a pace they control. For younger donors (age 50 and below), the Web is becoming the preferred venue for personal business. Equip your Web site with the tools and information donors need: your official bequest language, calculators for experimenting with various gift scenarios, and forms for making noncash gifts, stock gifts, and bequests.

 7) Personally visit top prospects. For most gift planners, face-to-face meetings with donors are the reward for all of the other labors associated with fundraising. “As hard as personal visits are to get, once you’re in, they’re the best part of the job,” reports my colleague Suzanne Mineck, former director of gift planning at a prominent hospital. “That’s where you find out what donors are passionate about—what they’re goals are. It’s where the really meaningful planned gifts happen.” Suzanne recommends that gift planning officers make 12 to 15 visits with donors each month.

8) Implement a print marketing program. Direct mail should form the foundation of your planned giving marketing efforts and typically includes newsletters, brochures, postcards, envelope enclosures, and letters. The intent of direct mail is to: 1) Reinforce your mission, good work, and future needs. 2) Educate donors about estate and gift planning topics. 3) Drive readers to your Web site, thus creating synergy between your online and offline communications. 4) Generate response to your appeals. 5) Inspire donors to seek professional advice on estate and gift planning. 6) Break the ice for future conversations about planned gifts.

9) Train your team. A successful gift planner combines the talents of a guidance counselor, a salesperson, a technical consultant, and a psychologist, with the trustworthiness of a good friend. Education can arm you with the complex skills, not to mention the confidence, needed to be successful. Enroll yourself (and your board, if you can afford it) in a course on the basics of gift planning. Also consider a class in relationship-building and basic sales training to help you better understand your audience and fine-tune your approach.

10) Host educational events. One of the “softest” and often most successful ways to develop planned gifts is through educational events that are designed for the sole benefit of the donor, such as estate planning, financial guidance, or inheritance planning seminars. Choose an engaging subject and title (e.g., “The 10 Conversations You Need to Have With Your Family, But Probably Never Have”), and keep the emphasis firmly on education. Daytime sessions, such as a breakfast or lunch, work well for older audiences because driving at night is often difficult. Follow up with each attendee to gently begin the process of cultivating a planned gift.

Have patience with your program. It takes an average of seven years for a gift planning program to mature to the point where gifts are materializing, and it takes three to five qualified prospects to secure one planned gift. Maintain continuity in your efforts with donors—regardless of your immediate or short-term gain. In time, the rewards will come.

Larry Stelter is author of How to Raise Planned Gifts by Mail. He is president and CEO of The Stelter Company, a gift planning communications firm that provides print, Web, and electronic products, donor research, consulting, and training to 2,600 nonprofits nationwide.

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