Posted June 1st, 2002

Gift Planners Share Their Keys to Success

In this month’s “Gift Planner Profile,” two experienced development officers from very different organizations, Russel Kost of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and Kurt Struver of Happiness Is Camping, share with Give & Take what led them to the field of gift planning and what keeps them there.

Russ Kost, Director of Gift Planning with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has worked in development at UNLV for 17 years.

Give & Take: How did you become involved in the field of development, and what roles have you played?

Russ Kost: I graduated from UNLV in 1983 and two years later was offered a job as assistant to the Director of Development. I didn’t know anything about fundraising! I then had the opportunity to work on the annual fund and eventually became Director of Major Giving, helping to start the major gift department here. In one of my first solicitations with a major gift donor, I got an introduction to planned giving. I was asking a gentleman for an outright gift, and his reply intrigued me when he said, “I want to do that, Russ, but I’ve got to talk to my CPA to figure out the best way to make the gift.” And that was my entrée to planned giving. Now I’m focusing solely on planned giving as Director of Gift Planning, which allows me to spend more time out in the field doing what I love to do—talking with friends of UNLV.

Give & Take: What is it about your work that inspires you the most?

Kost: Having the opportunity to help somebody else through the generosity of other people. We have a program here called COHORT that was funded in part with gifts that we helped solicit. There is a huge shortage of teachers in Las Vegas, with a specific need for special education teachers. In 1996 we created a program in conjunction with UNLV’s College of Education and the Clark County school district to identify people who wanted to be teachers—people who were already working in the school district as hall monitors, teachers’ aides, etc.—and help them achieve the education and training they needed to become certified teachers. The program has enjoyed great success and has been responsible for helping the participants achieve their dreams of being teachers, and our office played a role in that success by giving people the opportunity to impact other people’s lives. That is by far the greatest joy of this job.

Give & Take: What strategies have you found to be most successful in communicating with your donors?

Kost: UNLV is only 44 years old. Our alumni base is relatively young, so we have traditionally relied on our friends in the community for gifts that normally appeal to older people. We spend a good bit of time cultivating relationships with our friends’ advisors and getting those advisors to introduce our institution to members of the community who have the means to potentially support UNLV.

Now that our alumni base is growing, we also send out a number of mailings. We have a planned giving newsletter as well as a gift planning column in our alumni magazine. But the thing that’s gotten us the most response is our year-end mailing that we send out every year in October. The Sharpe brochure “Giving Before December 31” is great because it makes it clear that there is some urgency to giving at the end of the year, and we have every year gotten our highest response from that brochure.

Give & Take: Since you’ve been involved in the field of development for 17 years, what advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Kost: First, your integrity is the important thing you have and the one and only thing you can keep for yourself. You should treasure it, protect it, and fight for it at all costs. And then, if you make a commitment, keep it. Never make a commitment you cannot keep. And don’t commit more to donors than you can deliver.

Now Executive Director of Happiness Is Camping, Kurt Struver has also worked in the nonprofit world at the Guggenheim Museum and at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewlett National Design Museum in New York.

Give & Take: Can you tell us about your organization and your specific role?

Kurt Struver: We are the only full-summer camp specifically for kids with cancer. We got started 22 years ago and serve 300-400 campers each year. We have now seen literally thousands of kids come through our camp. They do everything and anything that any kid does at summer camp. At all times we have a doctor and two to three nurses from Memorial Sloan-Kettering who volunteer their time, as well as a staff nurse who is there for continuity.

My father played a big role in founding the camp, so I grew up going to the camp, working in the summers, and became more and more involved through the years. Now I serve as executive director of Happiness Is Camping, which is the kind of job that helps you keep your life in perspective.

Give & Take: I understand that your organization was particularly affected by the turmoil of last fall.

Struver: September 11 touched everyone in the country, of course, but for the last 11 or 12 years Julie McMann, a pediatric cancer nurse from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, has been coming to camp as a volunteer. About 10 years ago at the camp she met her husband, Bobby, a firefighter in New York who volunteered at the camp for a week each summer. He and Julie fell in love, got married, had a baby, and then he was one of the first firefighters at the scene on September 11 and, sadly, did not survive. Julie now has their second son, who is about five months old, and will be at camp again this summer for a week as a volunteer.

Julie is unbelievable. At one point she called us up and said that since the camp meant the world to Bobby, she wanted whatever donations she gets in Bobby’s name to go to the camp. As a result, we have seen a substantial amount of money donated to our camp. Bobby was a special guy. We miss him a lot.

Give & Take: I imagine you have a very devoted donor base.

Struver: We do. It’s incredible. I don’t even think of them as a donor base. They’re more like a family.

Give & Take: What have you found to be the most successful way to communicate with your donors?

Struver: We’re very small. We only solicit gifts from about 1,800 people, and each time we do a mailing we get about a 20% return. Our mailings are unlike any others you will see. Our letters are all anecdotal. We tell stories—about us, about the kids, about the camp—and people come to know us and respond to us in a generous way.

Each fall we make a year-end appeal using year-end brochures we get from Robert F. Sharpe and Company. We accompany those with a letter asking people to be generous in the season of giving, and we get a great response from our friends.

Give & Take: As someone who has been so successful in forming strong relationships with your donors, what advice would you give someone just starting out in the field of development?

Struver: Be passionate about what you do. I think my love for the kids and the camp comes across. I don’t know how it couldn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has come to the camp or heard about what we do who hasn’t fallen in love with the charity and tried to become part. If you really have a love for what you do, it’s going to come across.

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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