Posted September 1st, 2000

Developing Relationships is Gift Planner’s Main Goal

Larry O’Neal, senior development director and assistant to the vice president of advancement for The University of Alabama, didn’t know much about planned giving when he started out in development with the school. But he found the skills he had used in his banking career transferred nicely to his new business of working with donors, alumni, and friends. Mr. O’Neal has recently been named to the national board of the NCPG. Find out more about Mr. O’Neal and his practical advice on gift planning in this “Gift Planner Profile.”

Give & Take: How did you come to work in fund raising with the University of Alabama?

O’Neal: I started with the University about 12 years ago. Prior to that I worked as a personal trust officer for about 10 years in Laurel, Mississippi and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The University approached me about working in an area called planned giving. Though I had no idea what planned giving was all about, everything fell into place, and I started out as director of planned giving. It has been a wonderful experience. I have worked in several capacities since then. My position involves a combination of direct responsibilities and working in collaboration with other University development staff. Our gift planning area helps divisional fundraisers identify prospective donors and develop gift plans for their respective areas. Our team also provides assistance with University marketing pieces and other aspects of our fund raising from a central administration standpoint.

Give & Take: What is it about your role that keeps you inspired?

O’Neal: No question about it, meeting with prospects and donors inspires me the most. I am out there all the time. Sitting behind a desk and doing administrative work are my least favorite tasks. Meeting with people, developing relationships, understanding their needs and desires, and then trying to marry those up with the needs and goals of the institution is very rewarding.

What I do is very similar to what I did as a banker. Developing relationships and creating a level of confidence is what you must do, whether you’re working with trust clients or donors. Being able to sit down with donors and develop the quality of relationship where they feel they can trust me to help them implement plans that will benefit the institution while meeting their personal goals as well, that’s what it is all about. Then to see them experience the joy as a result of doing that is icing on the cake!

Give & Take: What do you think is the most common mistake gift planners make?

O’Neal: The tendency to let other things get in the way of actually going out and seeing people is a problem. My other colleagues and I often discuss ways to beat this obstacle. We need to visit with donors one on one if possible, or certainly by phone and through written correspondence. Basically, gift planners just have to get out there in order to get the work done.

Give & Take: Why do you think people make planned gifts to your University and what makes planned givers special as donors?

O’Neal: Most of the people that I work with have really fond memories of the University. When they consider making a gift, they look at it as an opportunity to give back to a place that is very special to them. Most of them tell me, “When I was at The University of Alabama, that was the finest time of my life.” In my experience, those who make planned gifts are very generous people and they want to give something back to a place that meant so much to them. With the typical planned giver, I believe it is emotion and a sense of connection with the institution that drives the gift.

Give & Take: What do you believe is the gift planner’s chief role in giving process?

O’Neal: I think we have to “direct traffic,” so to speak. We have to listen, listen, listen. Then we try to respond based on what the donor is trying to accomplish and try to marry up all the interests that meet their objectives. Then of course we meet with them and their advisors in order to help facilitate what the donor wants to do. I certainly believe that we as charitable gift planners have a place on the donor’s estate and financial planning team. I think we can add value to the process if we are allowed to be a full participant on the team.

Give & Take: What tips have you learned on the job that might help fellow development professionals with their work?

O’Neal: You must first of all like people. And you must listen to what is being said, and sometimes uncover what has not been said. It is also important to learn when to disconnect when you are in a meeting with someone. I have found that if you have been meeting with someone for longer than 40 minutes, you have probably stayed too long. There are exceptions to this of course, but early on in the relationship with a donor, I think 40 minutes is a good target length for a meeting.

I also don’t believe in being too aggressive. I might miss some gifts because I am not as aggressive as I need to be, but I think it is important to let the process work. And you have to understand that in most cases it will take a year or two for the gift to work its way to fruition. I call it being patiently persistent.

The other tip is don’t get too technical. Don’t use all the gift planning jargon and overuse computer computations when dealing with a donor. Figure out a way to explain planned giving concepts in simple layman’s terms. I think we are all guilty of overcomplicating the communications at times because gift planning can, in fact, be very technical.

When you have a donor who really wants to learn more about the technical aspects of their gift, then you need to be able to talk the talk with that person. But when you’re working with the average prospect, you need to be sensitive enough to throw out all the buzzwords and speak in a general way.

You should also be mindful of the basics: be prompt for meetings and appointments, follow up with people when they have made requests of you, and be candid with people. These tips will carry you a long way in this profession in which we have a great opportunity to help people develop plans that meet their personal goals and the goals of nonprofit institutions.

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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