Posted April 1st, 2001

Fund Raiser in Higher Education Finds Niche in Gift Planning

In this month’s “Gift Planner Profile” Give & Take talks with Valerie Kuramoto, assistant vice president for development at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Ms. Kuramoto, formerly in annual fund and campaign development at Cornell, discusses why she moved into planned giving and how she has enhanced the planned giving program at Mary Washington.

Give & Take: Why were you drawn to work in the nonprofit world? Did you always plan to work in development?

Kuramoto: It wasn’t something that I originally thought I had a calling for. When I graduated from college, I went to New York to work in advertising. I had a degree in English and I thought I wanted to be a copy-writer. I realized that if I wanted to advance in that career that I would need a master’s degree. So I went to grad school at Cornell for a communication’s degree. While I was there, I decided to seek employment while I was working on my thesis. I was offered a job running phonathons in Cornell’s athletic department. This was my first exposure to fund raising. The director of athletic public affairs asked me to write some brochures for him, as well as call volunteers and give them their solicitation assignments. The next thing I knew I was getting pulled more and more into this work and discovered I was really good at it. After I completed my master’s in 1988, I took a position in Cornell’s Annual Fund as a development assistant. I literally worked my way up from the ground floor there. After working in the annual gifts area for a few years, I moved over to leadership gifts to work on the regional component of Cornell’s $1.2 billion campaign. In 1997, I came to Mary Washington and have had the opportunity to learn how to do planned giving.

Give & Take: Why did you want to work in the area of planned giving?

Kuramoto: It appealed to me for several reasons. First of all, I like the financial aspects of it. While I wouldn’t want to be a full-time financial planner, I do have an acumen for numbers. With planned giving I saw the opportunity to expand the range of my development work. I also really like working with older people. My grandmother moved in with my family when I was eight years old and lived with us for 23 years. Because of that I was very accustomed to being around older people and I have a real comfort level with them. Planned giving has given me the opportunity to work with older donors.

Give & Take: What characteristics do you think a successful gift planner should have?

Kuramoto: You have to be a very good listener. You also really have to enjoy being with people and meeting new people and wanting to hear about their lives— genuinely, not putting it on, because people can see through that. I think if you can’t genuinely enjoy hearing someone’s life story, then you’d probably have a hard time being a development officer, especially in the area of planned giving.

I think you also have to have a lot of patience. Planned gifts are not the kind of gifts that people do spontaneously. Even though you implement a planned giving program and you see improvement in the numbers, you can’t really put your finger on it like you could when I was in annual giving. You have to have patience because planned giving programs build over time as you maintain a consistent marketing program. You are going to have a steady pool of interested donors. You have to remember that planned gifts are on the donors’ time. I am so careful not to make people feel pressured because that is the fastest way to have them withdraw. It is a very personal decision to make a gift that must be incorporated in one’s overall estate and financial plan, so I am very cautious not to put pressure on donors.

Give & Take: Are there other ways that planned giving is different from your other development experience?

Kuramoto: Campaign work by its nature involves more pressure to complete gifts in the near term and you may not be dealing with donors who are as committed as many planned gift donors. I learned a great deal of humility by going out on cold calls on people who were not tried and true donors. I guess the best part of my annual fund and campaign days at Cornell was having a great supervisor and mentor, Jeff McCarthy. Jeff taught me how to plan and that if you had a good plan in place the results would come. He stressed that it was accomplishing a plan that would ultimately lead to success. So even though in planned giving you may not always get immediate gratification, if you are implementing a plan and doing it well, the gifts will come. For example, if you have a planned giving seminar and only 20 people come out, don’t worry. After every seminar we’ve sponsored, we have received a gift. When you have something like that happen, you know that your plan is working.

Give & Take: Can you tell us about any particularly interesting gifts you have been involved in planning?

Kuramoto: In one case an alumna who had informed us that the College was in her will and was a member of our Heritage Society called me. She had just moved back to Virginia after living in New York for many years. She had not seen the campus since she graduated in the fifties and wanted to take a tour. I arranged for a student ambassador to meet us for a tour and then we had lunch together on campus. At the end of the day she handed me a check for $600, the largest single gift she had ever given. We wrote her thank you notes and she was invited to our luncheon in the spring for Heritage Society members. Later in the year she called again and said she wanted to fund a $10,000 scholarship. When we visited her to complete the scholarship gift, she said she needed some additional information because she was revising her will. She had her attorney contact us about making a bequest to the college. A few weeks later, she called to say she had been reading some more information about the scholarship program and had decided to increase the scholarship she had already set up by sending an additional $10,000. Then her attorney sent me the page in her will which specified her bequest to the college—we are going to be receiving half of her estate. We also have a campaign under way for a new alumni center. I told her about it and she decided to make a $10,000 commitment to that as well. So this is a good example of how discovering a bequest intention and building on that as the base of a relationship can result in major gifts. This process started in the fall of 1999, and within a year she had given us $30,000 and made a commitment involving half of her estate.

Give & Take: Tell us a bit about initiating the planned giving marketing program at Mary Washington.

Kuramoto: There had been a program in place years ago, but there had been a gap in staffing and the program had lapsed. Coming here and getting the planned giving program started up again, and seeing the results of our marketing efforts, has been very gratifying. I received a tremendous amount of support from the senior vice president for advancement and college relations, Ron Singleton. Ron was instrumental in getting the approvals and funding to get the program off the ground. The first year we started the program we completed a number of gift annuities. The second year we doubled the number of planned gift agreements. We have increased membership in our Heritage Society about 14% since we started—up from increases that averaged about 3% annually. I won an Award of Excellence in 1999 from CASE District 3 for the marketing program we started here. Our program includes an estate planning council of local professionals, donor seminars, and newsletters from Sharpe, as well as articles in our alumni magazine. The whole package came together because I had the great support and leadership of Ron Singleton. He made sure the environment for success was there.

Give & Take: Have you received any advice about development work that you would like to share?

Kuramoto: I think you need to know what your institution’s needs and priorities are and then you must really listen to what your donors want to accomplish. It is easy to go in and tell a donor what your organization needs, but the real talent in development work is being able to understand what donors want and help them accomplish their goals in a way that is mutually beneficial to them and your organization.

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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