Bob Turner has served as Director of Planned Giving at Seattle University for nine years. Prior to his current position, Mr. Turner gained experience at a variety of institutions, including healthcare, educational, and religious organizations. In this month’s Gift Planner Profile, Bob shares with Give & Take the insights he has gained over his long and varied career.
Give & Take: What is your current role at Seattle University?
Bob Turner: I am the Director of Planned Giving, and I’m also the only person doing planned giving at the University. Seattle University is the largest private university in the Pacific Northwest and is one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. Providing excellence in education to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it is one of the priorities of the Jesuit system. This requires a strong financial aid program. Much of the fundraising that my colleagues and I do is directed toward strengthening the scholarship program.
Give & Take: How did you get into planned giving work?
Turner: I was a pastor in the United Presbyterian Church and then worked as a campaign fundraiser for its national mission programs. After that I began doing planned giving work for the church and later moved to the National Office and became the Manager of Gift Administration for the United Presbyterian Church Foundation, then located in New York City.
This was at the time when the Presbyterian Church was resolving the split in the church that had occurred during the American Civil War. At the end of the reunification that resulted in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I had the chance to become the Associate Director of Planned Giving at Princeton University. I was anxious to start dealing more directly with donors again, and this job change afforded me just such an opportunity. I was there for four years.
As part of working with Princeton’s alumni, I traveled a good bit to the Pacific Northwest and fell in love with it. In 1991, an opportunity arose to work at St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, and I made the move. After about three years I was encouraged to apply for my current position at Seattle University, and I’ve been here ever since.
Give & Take: As someone who has been involved in planned giving at a variety of organizations—healthcare, religion, education —what are some of the differences or similarities that you have noticed?
Turner: A university has alumni, a built-in group of people who have a long tradition of appreciation for the university. They may or may not have been donors before. In fact, some of our best planned giving donors are people who never responded to annual fund appeals but wanted to express their appreciation for the education they received.
Give & Take: It sounds as if they may have felt unable to make gifts of any magnitude during their lifetimes but were motivated enough to leave a bequest.
Turner: I suspect that’s the case, but nobody tells me that directly! I have observed that some come from families where there was no tradition of charitable giving. Yet these are people that have real affection for what’s going on at the University, and planned giving is an opportunity for some of those people to show their appreciation through making a difference in the lives of others.
Give & Take: What about hospital settings?
Turner: In the hospital setting, a totally different group of people responded to appeals for funds. Some of them were former patients, but a lot of them were people living in the area who wanted to make sure there was an excellent medical facility nearby in the event they ever needed it.
Healthcare work provides less of an organized constituency. I mailed newsletters to former patients and also sent mailings to certain zip codes—affluent neighborhoods and areas surrounding the hospital. I tried to appeal to people who appreciated the hospital’s presence and vital role in the community.
At a university I don’t reach out to the general public in the same way. This fall, however, I had some success with gift annuity ads placed in the local Catholic newspaper. The resulting gift and positive comments enabled us to forge a better connection to our major non-alumni connection, which is the Catholic Church.
Give & Take: What other communications with your donor base are successful for you?
Turner: Sharpe helps us create planned giving newsletters that we furnish our donors, and I also send out a couple of other mailings each year to a special group of more affluent alumni and friends.
Give & Take: The December 2002 Center on Philanthropy survey reveals that confidence and optimism in the development world are at record lows. As someone who has seen—and survived—downturns in the economy before, perhaps you can share your perspective.
Turner: The stock market downturn, now three years old, is depressing to all of us. But this will not go on forever.
Seattle University has been fortunate because we recently received a large bequest from one of the University’s major donors. Although we’re enjoying the benefits of this gift now, it is a result of careful stewardship of a relationship that had gone on for at least 40 years.
That underscores the fact that the current economy does not necessarily dominate what’s happening in the planned giving office. Planned giving takes time and can thus be somewhat immune to current market fluctuations. As a planned giving officer, you have to be ready to respond to people on their terms and timetables—when they decide to sell the family farm or that a certain stock is no longer one they want to own.
Some of those things happen at a time when we never expect it. That’s why planned giving is so important—because careful, long-term stewardship of relationships can help an organization withstand weak economic times.
Give & Take: Do you have any tips for someone just starting out in the planned giving field?
Turner: Planned giving is a matter of both mastering technical knowledge and caring for people’s well-being. That is something that is always emphasized in Sharpe seminars. I’ve attended a number of training sessions over the years. In fact, when two programs were recently offered here in Seattle we sent the Vice President for University Advancement, the Director of Development, and two of our Major Gift officers.
It is not our expectation that any of these people will become planned giving experts. As a result of this training, however, we believe they will now be more comfortable with their natural role in conversations about bequests and other planned giving arrangements and will consider directing donors who cannot make an outright gift toward a planned gift. We are all convinced that planned giving is one of the great growth areas of the University’s future.