Posted September 1st, 2001

Donor Messages Offer Clues, Call for Creative Response

Building future bequest income begins with informing long-term donors and other constituents about ways that they can remember their favorite organization(s) in their wills or other estate plans. Unless donors make even a basic plan, no charitable gifts will occur at their passing. As a result, one of the main purposes of mailings on wills and similar gift plans is to share information designed to encourage the donor to take action regarding their future plans.

Many development executives have another goal as well: To begin a dialogue with donors. Planned giving communication efforts can serve to initiate “conversations” with some of your most interested donors. Reply devices and questionnaires can offer a way for the donor to respond and, in so doing, open the door to the beginning of a relationship.

Whether on a card or a questionnaire, some donors also give clues to their personality and motivations by comments penned—sometimes almost illegibly—in the margins.

Reading between the lines to identify oppor­tunities takes practice. But it can prevent the loss of a substantial gift—which may well go to another organization with more astute development staff members.

How would you answer?

Donors to a major university wrote the following comments on questionnaires they were sent at the end of a quarterly mailing program. What opportunities for further contact does each present?

“Ought to make decisions on worthy causes, but main concern is grandchildren.”

While this may sound like a “Sorry, not interested,” reply, this person may be surprised to learn that grandchildren need not be slighted by charitable giving. If little else is known about the writer, a phone call would be appropriate to say thanks for the comment and suggest that there may be ways to give that actually enhance benefits to heirs.

After you learn more about the person, you may decide to suggest a lead trust, a term-of-years trust that pays income to the grandchildren to help with college expenses, or other planned gift arrangement. Or remind the person about a residual bequest that would be completed only after other heirs are provided for.

“Any change…will be determined by our financial situation, considering we are living on a retirement income.”

Another “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” answer? Not really. These people have provided a key piece of information — that they are retired. That tells you they are in a key age group for planned giving. They also may be interested in giving-for-income plans to supplement their pension. A gift annuity may be especially attractive.

“I have not looked at the information which you sent. When the golf season slows down, I expect to get busy on my will preparation.”

It’s rare for respondents to take the time to tell you they haven’t read your material, let alone to imply that they have saved it and plan to read it later. This comment signals deeper interest. Mark the donor for future contact when more help may be welcome. It may be impressive that you remembered the comment. Also note the interest in golf in your records. This may be an indication that the donor is still in the prime of life and may be interested in a plan that provides additional income in future years.

“As an attorney, I prepare wills.”

Add this person to your list of professionals whom you keep informed of planned gift marketing activities. A follow-up call may be appropriate to introduce yourself and establish a relationship on which to draw in the future. This person may serve as a volunteer for you in their community and help with questions donors may have.

“I plan to update my will in the near future and will retain you as beneficiary.”

Why can’t they all be like this? A thank-you phone call is appropriate. The donor may be interested in memorial opportunities for the bequest, or in more information about the types of bequests and their advantages and disadvantages.

“I will be the sole recipient of my mother’s modest estate and I will not be in a position to rearrange my will or make charitable contributions until my mother dies; she is 98.”

You may decide to handle this one with a letter. The writer has revealed much more than is necessary, suggesting a willingness to communicate further. If you learn of the mother’s death, a carefully written letter some six months later can remind the writer of the intentions he or she revealed in the earlier communication.

Response devices are important to building ongoing relationships with donor prospects.

When a person takes time to say thanks or even to explain why they can’t or won’t give now, this need not be the end of the story. It could be an invitation to begin a relationship that could be mutually beneficial to the donor and the charitable interest.

Editor’s note: This material is based on Mr. Adcock’s presentations in the popular Sharpe seminar “An Introduction to Planned Giving.” Click here for more information.

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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