Posted February 1st, 2010

Building Strong Relationships with Donors Leads to Success

Sue Dishart is Director of Planned Giving at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a leading guide dog school based in New York state that serves blind and visually impaired persons worldwide. As someone who entered the field of planned giving following experience in the corporate world, Ms. Dishart frequently draws on her background in business and finance in her current fund-raising role. Here she shares with Give & Take marketing and other strategies that have helped her build strong and lasting bonds with her donors.

Give & Take: How did you get started in planned giving?

Dishart: As is sometimes the case, I didn’t originally plan to work in development. After 20 years in the corporate world, I decided to follow the passions I had developed in my volunteer work. My involvement with the Girl Scouts eventually led to my former role as Vice President of Fund Development and Partnerships for Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson.

As my fund-raising skills matured, I learned more about charitable gift planning by attending seminars such as those offered by The Sharpe Group. I soon discovered that planned giving was a natural fit for me given my background in business and finance. When a position in planned giving at Guiding Eyes for the Blind became available last January, I knew it was a great match for my passion and experience. I’ve now been Director of Planned Giving at Guiding Eyes for just over a year.

G&T: Tell us about Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Dishart: For over 50 years, Guiding Eyes for the Blind has been dedicated to enriching the lives of the blind and visually impaired by providing them with the freedom to travel safely, thereby assuring greater independence, dignity, and new horizons of opportunity.

Our work is comprehensive, beginning with breeding and culminating in graduating teams—blind people partnered with Guiding Eyes dogs—returning to their homes with increased independence and confidence to lead fulfilling lives. Our colony of Labrador retrievers is one of the oldest in the world, and the dogs that ultimately become guide dogs are renowned for their superior health and temperament.

Each month, students from all over the United States and the world travel to our facility and stay on campus for 26 days while they learn to work with their dogs as teams. We successfully match and train 160 guide dog teams each year.

Thanks to a professional and dedicated staff, the diversity of our students, and a corps of over 1,400 dedicated volunteers, Guiding Eyes is a vibrant and special place. One of the bonuses of my work is to take donors on tours of our facilities. Donors enjoy being able to hold the puppies, seeing the training in action, and learning about the services we provide. And I love being able to share our mission—it never fails to renew my faith in our work.

G&T: How does your planned giving department interact with those responsible for other fund-raising efforts, such as major gifts?

Dishart: I am fortunate to have very skilled and professional colleagues who manage major gifts, special events, and corporate and foundation gifts. We work well as a team because we don’t “compete” with each other, recognizing that we each have unique talents and skills. We all strive to do our best to support the mission, and we often refer donors to each other if we feel they would be better served by someone else. I know that’s not a luxury everyone has, but it’s a core value of something we actively work toward.

I’ve found that if you make sure your donors are happy, you’ll likely reach your goals.

G&T: What techniques have you found to be most successful when communicating with donors?

Dishart: It’s important to match the content of your communications with your audience. For instance, it makes sense to market bequests to an older group, while somewhat younger or wealthier donors may appreciate hearing about other opportunities such as lead and remainder trusts. At Guiding Eyes, we have developed a large and detailed database over time to support our direct mail program. I use those names to select the planned giving mailings recipients.

We mail our planned giving newsletter twice per year to roughly 20,000 donors, but we may vary the recipient list depending on the topic. We recently had an overwhelming response to an issue on wills and bequests. Many of those who responded informed us that they had already included Guiding Eyes in their will, while others requested information on doing so. The key to our success was The Sharpe Group’s advice that we target the right people—not necessarily high-dollar donors, but older donors who have given consistently over a period of years.

G&T: How else do you strengthen your relationships with donors?

Dishart: One of the first things I do when I meet donors is to ask them why they support Guiding Eyes. It sounds basic, but I’ve seen several development officers jump right into discussing a potential gift before finding out the answer to this question. It is important to me to tailor the rest of our conversation to their response. The motivations and interests of a donor whose father was blind, for instance, are quite different from those of a donor who simply loves dogs and appreciates the role they play in serving the sight impaired. We have some of both as well as others who support the work of Guiding Eyes.

Each time I communicate with donors, I prepare for success. That means making sure I have both the materials and the staff on hand to respond quickly to requests for more information. Additionally, I include a handwritten note with every piece of correspondence so that the donor knows it wasn’t mass produced. When possible, I even address envelopes by hand. It takes a lot more time, but it’s worth it in the long run. Sincere personal attention is essential in developing strong donor relationships.

I make an effort to correspond regularly with donors. Birthday cards and thank you notes sent with no strings attached are always appreciated. I’ve also noticed that donors really respond to seeing my photograph in our materials. When I call or meet with a donor for the first time, many feel they already know me because they’ve seen my picture.

G&T: Do you have a society to honor those who have already made planned gifts?

Dishart: Our Pathfinder Society honors those who have included Guiding Eyes in their will or estate plan in some way. When someone becomes a Pathfinder, he or she begins a “photographic” partnership with a puppy. Whenever a chosen puppy reaches a milestone, we send the donor a note with the puppy’s picture. When the dog is set to graduate with its partner, we invite the Pathfinder to the graduation ceremony. At this point, the donor is able to meet both the dog and its partner and see how his or her donation has enabled others to regain their independence.

Because our graduates live all across the country, when I travel I often ask a local graduate to meet with Pathfinders in the area to speak first-hand about the mission and the difference our organization has made in his or her life. Our donors really appreciate being able to see the vital impact their donations have made in someone’s life, and it’s a meaningful experience for our graduates as well. That’s a very special moment when all the work we do comes full circle.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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