Posted August 1st, 2003

Expecting the Best

Last August, the Reverend Sara Batson of Christ Episcopal Church in Media, Pennsylvania, received an exciting phone call: An attorney informed her that one of her parishioners had just bequeathed 75% of a $1.8 million estate to her church.

As Rector of what she describes as a modest parish, Rev. Batson was astonished, but not unprepared for a gift of this magnitude. At her instigation, her church had just devoted almost two years’ worth of deliberations to the implementation of policies to manage the church’s then much smaller endowment. In June of 2002 the work was complete, and the parishioners were informed of the new policies. One month later the donor met with her attorney to formalize and finalize the terms of her bequest to Christ Church.

While Rev. Batson does not know whether or not this gift is a direct result of the church’s new policies, she and other members of her church feel certain that they made the right decision to develop a planned giving program.

Give & Take: What led you to believe that your church needed to have endowment management policies in place?

Rev. Sara Batson: The church was fortunate in that it enjoyed an endowment of $250,000 that had resulted from the sale of real estate owned by the church. We are a program-size parish of about 500 members whom no one would consider to be affluent, so when I said that we needed some rules, policies, and spending guidelines regarding the endowment, there was some debate: Did we need to bother? After all, our $250,000 endowment could hardly be called large. Did it warrant spending time and money to come up with these policies when we only had $250,000 to worry about and no other gifts on the horizon?

I had learned through past work experiences that having endowment management policies in place can stave off future problems. I felt that if we established policies before any issues arose, people would gain confidence that their gifts would be put to good use and managed according to set policies and procedures. For example, if donors contemplate a gift of $1,000, they will know ahead of time exactly how we would handle their gift and would naturally be more inclined to make that gift. And a lot of $1,000 gifts add up to a healthy endowment. What led us to develop the policies was not an anticipation of any large gift, but it happened that two months after we had finished our policies and presented an educational program to our parish I got a phone call from a lawyer who told me that one of our parishioners had bequeathed to us 75% of her $1.8 million estate.

What makes this a great story is that this woman had given only about $5 a month to the church, had dressed like a pauper, and was a woman of incredible humility. She was a quiet, gentle spirit who was never boastful—very deeply devoted, caring, loving, and intelligent.

It was a real surprise to most of us that she had possessed this kind of wealth. It was an additional lesson that no one can really say who is capable of making an extraordinary gift—and you never know what may be in someone’s heart to motivate him or her to make such a gift.

Give & Take: How did you go about informing your parish about your newly instituted policies?

Batson: In the Episcopal Church, a parish elects 12 people to be on the Vestry. While the Vestry is not required to obtain the parishioners’ approval of what they are planning, it makes common sense to share important plans. During our endowment planning process, we included abbreviated summaries of our activities in our church newsletter. Over that time we also held two regularly scheduled meetings to inform the parish of the state of the church, including the status of the planned giving effort.

Give & Take: Did you or anyone on your planning committee have planned giving experience, or did you rely on a consultant for planned giving advice?

Batson: Both. Several of the members have experience as financial planners or as attorneys. In addition, the Episcopal Church provided us with templates that we then adapted to our particular needs. Our consultant was on call to help us with the technical side of things.

Give & Take: You mentioned before that you had previous work experience that helped you decide to create endowment management policies. Can you say a bit more about that?

Batson: For 35 years I worked as a professional nurse. The last 15 years of that career were spent in management, and I had responsibilities in that position for standardizing clinical policies and procedures for a multi-site hospital system. While I was not directly involved in development or fund-raising work, I have had a lot of experience in consulting—in coming into an organization, seeing the way things are structured, and deciding how to make the organization run successfully. That’s why when I saw that we had $250,000 in endowment with no policies in place regarding how to invest, save, or spend it, I knew we needed a change.

Give & Take: Do you have any advice for people who may want to implement endowment management policies at their own organizations or institutions?

Batson: I would encourage them not to think that their organization is too small or their endowment too minor to warrant establishing a plan to build and manage it. No matter where you are in terms of planned giving right now, this work is incredibly beneficial when working to build endowment. If you lay the groundwork, the gifts will come.

Never be lulled into thinking that no one would consider giving your organization a large gift. You have to dream big dreams. It is possible that people currently or even formerly associated with your organization care so much that they will remember it in their wills. The better part of wisdom is to say that those people are out there, and we need to do the best we can so that we know how to receive and use their gifts.

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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