Posted March 1st, 2015

How a Young University Approaches Planned Giving

Angela Dunn is associate director of planned giving at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. With its oldest alumni barely 70 years old, the university has had to look beyond graduates to reach its planned giving goals.

Dunn AngelaThe University of South Alabama (USA) just reached a milestone: In 2013, the university celebrated its 50th anniversary. Established in 1963, the new university took off running, opening its doors a year later and graduating its first senior class of 88 students in 1967.

In the years since, USA has grown from a small commuter school to a thriving university with a total enrollment of over 16,000 students, offering undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees.

The university has experienced great growth in its short history, including the establishment of three healthcare centers: the USA Medical Center, the Children’s and Women’s Hospital and the Mitchell Cancer Institute. Patients, families and members of the community have donated funds to help the USA Health System become a major healthcare provider for Mobile and the Gulf Coast region, treating more than 250,000 patients annually.

As a relatively young university, USA’s oldest graduates are just now reaching the traditional age for planned gifts. While many universities have ranks of older alumni who make up a natural planned giving constituency, USA has had to take a slightly different approach.

Give & Take recently spoke with Angela Dunn, associate director of planned giving, to discover how she develops and sustains relationships with the university’s planned giving donors.

Give & Take: How did you get started in planned giving?

Dunn: I earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting at the University of South Alabama. Afterwards, I worked as an accountant in Mobile and as a commercial lender at a regional bank. After a few years, I decided it was time to reevaluate my career and seek a position I would find more fulfilling. When I thought about where my passion lies, I immediately thought of the university. I have immense pride in the education I received here.

I interviewed for and was offered the job of associate director of planned giving at USA and came to work here four years ago. Given my history at USA and my accounting experience, this job was a perfect fit for me.

Give & Take: What did you find most surprising or challenging during your first days on the job?

Dunn: When I first started, I thought planned giving was all about confirming gifts and putting them on the books. But once the first estate gift came to fruition, I realized this role is about so much more. Seeing a realized estate gift from a new perspective helped me fully appreciate what an honor it is for a donor to make such a gift to the university.

I didn’t anticipate the depth of the relationships I would build with our donors or that they and their families would become my friends. This is especially true when I’m participating in the settlement of an estate as a representative of USA. In working closely with the family, I get to know them and they help me understand what inspired the donor to make such a special gift. The stories I hear are so moving, and the emotions behind it all caught me off guard.

Soon after I took the job, one of my favorite professors in accounting established an estate gift—half for scholarships and half for a faculty award honoring outstanding work. I then went to this professor’s office, and we talked about my days as his student. About a year later, he became ill and passed away. It was really the most moving thing I’ve ever been a part of—to evolve from being one of his students to working with him in a professional setting and then at his passing meeting with his sisters to make sure his wishes were carried out. When the student scholarship in his memory was awarded for the first time, I realized how life had really come full circle.

Give & Take: As a younger university, most of your graduates have not yet reached the age of 70. Who are your typical planned giving donors?

Dunn: While we do have alumni who are making planned gifts, many of our donors are residents of the Mobile area who have been touched by the university in some way, whether as a patient at one of our hospitals or through interaction with one of our campus programs. And like the professor I just mentioned, others are former university staff or faculty.

Some of our donors make a gift to the university because they see a need in the community and look to USA to fill that need. For instance, the Mitchell Cancer Institute was funded in large part by donors who wanted to ensure that there is a top-notch cancer care facility in the Mobile area.

Give & Take: What are your favorite ways to interact with your donors?

Dunn: While other fundraisers at USA focus exclusively with specific hospitals, colleges or programs, my position allows me to work with donors planning a gift to any area of the university. During my first few months on the job, I visited with donors who had already notified the university of a planned gift to make sure we had everything documented and to reinforce the relationship with the donor.

I feel the best way to interact with donors is to keep it personal. When I talk to donors, I typically ask them if there’s anything the university can help them with. These conversations are the best way to make sure our donors stay informed about and feel connected to what’s happening at the university.

Every other November, we host a USA Legacy Society luncheon and invite everyone who’s made a planned gift to attend. If they’ve made a gift since the last luncheon, we present them with a glass plaque to acknowledge their gift. The majority of our donors live in the area, which makes it easy to bring them together for such events.

We also communicate with donors in other ways. Sharpe Group maintains our Planning Perspectives website and helps us produce the planned giving newsletters we send to our donors a few times a year. After our last newsletter, I got a call from a gentleman who said he had received our newsletter and was planning to meet with his attorney to set up a charitable trust for $250,000.

Give & Take: I understand a donor recently donated a valuable bust of Abraham Lincoln.

Dunn: A donor who was a passionate reader passed away in October. Her executor then informed us that she had left USA her entire personal library, which included everything from first edition Mark Twain novels to the Twilight series.

abraham lincolnIncluded in the library’s collection was a valuable bust of Abraham Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the nineteenth-century artist who created the famous sculpture of Abraham Lincoln that stands in Lincoln Park in Chicago. This bust is one of only a handful commissioned by the artist, and the others reside in well-known museums throughout the country. Another of the busts is housed in the Oval Office! We placed the bust in the home of our university president.

Give & Take: What have you learned on the job that you didn’t realize when you started?

Dunn: Soon after I started, I had the chance to visit with planned giving officers at other universities. My position had been vacant for almost a year, so in a way I was largely able to recreate it. These individuals were more than willing to talk with me, share ideas and advise me on how to handle some sticky situations. I realized then that planned giving officers at various institutions are usually willing to help each other. We don’t view each other as competition because we’re all interested in protecting the donors’ best interests. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it!

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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