Joe Dinnison’s experience in the worlds of asset management and real estate development made him an ideal choice to become a board member at Whitworth College. Then, after 20 years of service on the board, this Whitworth alumnus made the transition from board member to executive director of the Whitworth College Foundation. Here Mr. Dinnison shares with Give & Take readers both the unique perspective his past experience allows him to bring to his new position and the perspective on life he has gained by working with an older generation of donors.
Give & Take: What led you to a career in fund raising?
Dinnison: Before taking on my current role as executive director of Whitworth’s foundation, I worked for years as a retail broker, helping to manage the college’s foundation and endowment assets. In 1994 I left that field to focus on commercial real estate development. For me it was a shallow existence, and I found that I really missed the relationships I had been able to form with wonderful and thoughtful individuals through my close relationship with Whitworth. A couple of years ago the board held a search for a new executive director of the Foundation, and I decided to change careers and assume that role.
It was a great move for me. I really enjoy working with people in their seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond, and my new position, which I’ve held for just over a year, allows me to do just that.
Give & Take: And you’ve chosen a very good subset of that generation to work with— those who have chosen to give back to their community and to make a difference.
Dinnison: Not only that—Whitworth graduates are special people. In the past Whitworth had a reputation for producing future missionaries and ministers, and many of the older alumni have made giving back to society their life’s work. These people have lived life, have reached out to their communities, and have made a difference in the lives of others—much more so than many of us. I find them to be a continuing source of inspiration.
Give & Take: I understand that one of these donors is particularly inspiring—a 103-yearman who just established a new gift annuity with Whitworth. How did this gift come about?
Dinnison: This donor is an extraordinary man. Born in 1900, he married but never had children. He lost his wife only a few years ago when she was 100. This gentleman is truly an example of the “millionaire next door.” He made his living teaching for 40 years at the local high school and accumulated his wealth by living modestly and investing wisely.
He and his wife shared their wealth with a number of local nonprofit institutions over the years. Their relationship with Whitworth started in 1979 when they set up a charitable remainder trust and then made four additional gifts to that trust. He set up his first gift annuity in 1993, followed by another in April 1999. This is his third gift annuity with Whitworth.
Give & Take: How do you communicate gift planning ideas to your constituents?
Dinnison: For several years we have created and mailed customized letters to planned giving prospects, providing information we thought would be relevant to them based on what we know about their situation in life. We also focus on maintaining an ongoing relationship with previous donors through follow-up letters and phone calls. In addition, we just started a newsletter program with Sharpe, the first issue of which will be mailed this spring.
We also try to hold events for local supporters, such as a tea we recently sponsored for a number of donors who all live in the same retirement community. It was a real success and helped to strengthen the bonds that already exist between Whitworth and these supporters.
Give & Take: As a former board member, what do you think development officers can do to facilitate their relationships with members of the board?
Dinnison: The key to a successful relationship with the board is to involve board members in what is going on at every possible level of the organization. Board members are typically people who are very committed to the institution and want to help, so our fund-raising officers spend some time at every board meeting explaining what we do and how the board can be a part of it.
At most board meetings we go over examples of gifts we have just completed so that the board will understand everything that’s involved in setting up a charitable gift. The more they know about how charitable gifts come about the better they will understand how to be more effective in their roles and how to help us generate new gifts.
Give & Take: What is your favorite part of your job?
Dinnison: I love working with active seniors. I feel honored to help dedicated people fulfill their desire to give and leave a legacy for younger generations.
Give & Take: What advice do you have for people just starting out in the field?
Dinnison: Don’t think too hard! Understand how gifts work, but realize that the most important part of your job is forming and nurturing relationships with persons who are among your organization’s most dedicated supporters. You don’t have to be an expert in every technical detail. You can always ask for help or advice from those who are. But you do have to get over your fear of picking up the phone and focus on the people and their relationships to your institution. They’re the heart and soul of development work.