In this month’s Give & Take we talk with Ms. Deter Wisniewski, vice president for development at the St. Louis Science Center. Why did Ms. Wisniewski decide on a career in fund raising, and what has she learned in her 20-year career in development? Ms. Wisniewski shares the answers to these questions and more in the following “Gift Planner Profile.”
Give & Take: How did you get started in the development field?
Wisniewski: I studied theater in college and went to work in theater management after school. But when a position came open in the theater’s development office, I took it. What I valued most about theater is that it can encourage people to see things in a new light. Development seemed to be a career devoted to working with people who not just looked at life, but who actively worked at improving their community and helping people. Those things that drew me to the field still energize and inspire me.
Give & Take: What has been some of the best advice you have received in your gift planning career?
Wisniewski: Something that Robert Sharpe, Sr., said once has stuck with me. He said, “Emotion is the river upon which logic flows.” Particularly in gift planning, it is important not to lose sight of the strong feelings people have for why they want to make a gift. The financial resources and planning tools are the ways and means in which people make the gift, but they are not the reasons why people make the gift.
I would also say that something that I really try to instill in the people I work with, both the volunteers as well as the president and staff here at the Science Center, is not to be discouraged by hearing someone say “no.” For one person the timing might be wrong, or it might not be the right project; there might be a lot of reasons not to be discouraged, but instead to ask why. While naturally I have a responsibility first and foremost to this museum, someone giving to another institution if they so choose helps our community as well. If my discussions with donors help them crystallize their thinking about their personal philanthropy and they choose to make a gift elsewhere, of course I am disappointed that they don’t make a gift here, but I am very pleased that they make a gift somewhere.
Give & Take: What do you like most about gift planning?
Wisniewski: The chance to stand on the sidelines and be a coach to those people who want to make the world a better place. The opportunity to work with people who have real courage in their convictions is inspiring.
Give & Take: What characteristics do you feel are inherent in successful gift planners?
Wisniewski: I think first and foremost successful gift planners are great listeners. They are usually very articulate people. They believe deeply in their organizations and believe that the work their organization is doing makes a difference. They are willing to step back and do what is right for the donor and also still do what is right for the organization. So they are able to juggle multiple priorities. They also have a long-term view and have the long-term health of the organization at heart. There is always a balance between the needs of today and the needs of tomorrow, and good gift planners can express to donors those needs. When I look at my colleagues, they are all professionals. They are warm and caring individuals who encourage donors to do the things that are right for them while still doing what is right for the organization.
Give & Take: Tell us about a few of the ways you acknowledge and thank your donors. Do you have any special recognition programs or events?
Wisniewski: We are getting ready to begin a recognition society for planned givers. We already have a very strong annual giving recognition program called the Albert Einstein Society. That recognizes donors of $1,000 or more. We have made it our practice that when donors start to decrease their giving, we don’t let them just drift away. We still invite them to events. We have been really fortunate to build a family among our donors. We see the same people coming to events over and over again. And those donors are telling others that they need to get involved. The core of our recognition program is the chance to be involved. For example, we do a series of 12 luncheons with our president in which he does not lecture, but instead listens to the donors and addresses their concerns. This has been extremely effective in building the type of relationships that result in the confidence necessary to sustain a “gift of a lifetime.”
Give & Take: Can you tell us about a gift you have been involved in planning of which you are particularly proud?
Wisniewski: The most interesting gift I have worked on was one that I helped plan with a donor whom I never met in person. I talked with him on the phone every day. Securing this gift was really a team effort.
The donor was an engineer during his working years and wanted to do all the gift calculations by himself. He was very detailed. We did phone conferences with our investment manager and our vice president of finance. The donor ultimately funded two types of trusts, a unitrust and an annuity trust. He was so convinced that with the good counsel he was getting from us that he could forgo obtaining his own counsel. I actually had to tell him that he had to get his own advice, which he did.
The human side to this story is that we talked on the phone literally every day for months and months. The first thing I did every morning when I went in to the office was call this donor. And he ended up giving the organization three-quarters of his estate.
A volunteer who worked in the development department here at the Science Center for at least ten years made another gift that touched me quite personally. She had cancer for the last year of her life, but she continued to come in to work even though she was weak and couldn’t do very much at that point. She was a wonderful lady and she left a generous bequest to the Science Center. It has touched a lot of people here, especially the staff and other volunteers who worked with her.
Give & Take: How do you deal with the loss of volunteers and donors who are close to you?
Wisniewski: I am always saddened when a donor or other friend of our institution dies. But the best advice I can give is that as gift planners we must maintain our professional distance. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we are representing our institution. But I also think it is very important not to harden ourselves to those inevitable losses. Treasure the time that you have with the people you work with. In any business I think you form attachments, but in our particular area of work most of our close relationships are with older people. But those of us who work in gift planning get so much from working with people who care this much about our organizations and our community, every day is astonishing. There aren’t many fields where you get to work with people who care that much all of the time. It is truly wonderful.