This month’s Gift Planner Profile features Jo Ann MacKenzie, Director of Planned and Special Gifts at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana. An alumna of Saint Mary’s and a fundraiser for 15 years, Ms. MacKenzie recently received news of a very special gift in honor of a young woman who suffered life-altering injuries on her way to begin her freshman year at Saint Mary’s. Here Ms. MacKenzie shares with Give & Take how Saint Mary’s handled this difficult situation and helped this student’s parents establish a gift in honor of their only child and the school she loved.
Give & Take: I understand that Saint Mary’s has recently received a gift in honor of a young woman who, because of a serious automobile accident, was never able to attend the College.
MacKenzie: Yes. In August of 1998, Sarah, an entering freshman, had packed her belongings and was ready to make the short trip from her home to the Saint Mary’s campus. She was a top student at her high school, as well as a golfer, volleyball player, and accomplished pianist, and had plans for a career in medicine. Her excitement and love of Saint Mary’s were contagious.
But before Sarah ever reached campus, the car in which she was a passenger was involved in a terrible accident. Five years later, Sarah is still suffering from the effects of a serious closed-head injury. Although she has made steady progress, she is still unable to speak and requires around-the-clock medical attention.
Although Sarah’s hopes for her time at Saint Mary’s were drastically changed by her injuries, her parents have made plans to help fulfill the dreams of other young women. Just this year they established the Sarah A. Foundation Trust.
Give & Take: What is the nature of the trust?
MacKenzie: As you can imagine, the donors’ main concern is for their daughter’s wellbeing. This trust primarily ensures that their only child will always have access to the best in medical care, even after they are no longer able to care for her. As a tribute to the school their daughter loved but was unable to attend, Sarah’s parents have named Saint Mary’s College as the primary charitable beneficiary of the trust. The trust will provide funds for the scholarships on which the dreams of so many future students depend. Sarah’s mother feels that giving a Saint Mary’s education to other young women is like giving it to Sarah.
Give & Take: This must have been a difficult situation for everyone. How did you manage your relationship with Sarah’s parents?
MacKenzie: It was actually the admissions office that initially established the College’s relationship with Sarah’s parents. After the accident, the College admissions office was extraordinarily sensitive and responsive. They followed the parents’ lead in establishing a caring, thoughtful, and considerate relationship that has helped Sarah’s parents transition into this new and unexpected reality.
As parents on our mailing list, they received the development office’s mailings and one day called us to talk about making a gift. After they first contacted us, we immediately called our consultant at the Sharpe Group and asked him how to proceed with this sensitive situation. Our Sharpe consultant reminded us that, though Sarah’s parents remain optimistic, they have had to come to terms with a grim reality. He urged us to simply focus on Sarah’s love of Saint Mary’s and to keep in mind what the parents are really trying to accomplish through this gift, which is to pass on a legacy of scholarship and opportunity to a group of women who have essentially become their surrogate daughters.
Give & Take: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
MacKenzie: It’s twofold. Initially, it is getting to know the donors—people like Sarah’s parents. People who make gifts at that level are extraordinary, and I am honored to be able to help them fulfill their desire to give.
Then, I love watching the effect that these gifts have on our own College. To see it thrive and become self-determining and deliver an excellent product to remarkable young women is very satisfying. The gifts that our development office helps to generate perpetuate the College’s legacy in the world and the legacy of those who have benefited from it.
Give & Take: As someone who has worked for a number of years in planned, major, and special gifts, what fund-raising techniques work best for you?
MacKenzie: In planned giving, we depend heavily on direct marketing. Still, as there is no substitute for personal contact, we spend about 50% of our time in the field. Our prospect research department generates a portfolio of prospective donors to help us determine which of our 16,000 active alumnae to visit.
Although Saint Mary’s College has a history that spans 160 years, we are relatively new to the personal visit aspect of fund raising. As a result, we have combined major, special, and planned giving into one department and everyone who meets with donors is equally well versed in each of these fields. Because of that, when prospective donors are unable or unwilling to make an outright gift, we are prepared to ask them if they would consider including Saint Mary’s in their estate plans.
As you can see from the story of Sarah’s parents, everyone at the College shares the primary goal of helping the College become the best it can be, and we work together to achieve that goal.
Give & Take: What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out in development work?
MacKenzie: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Those who work in development are an extraordinarily giving group of people. I am never afraid to call someone to ask for advice. People are without fail wonderfully helpful and generous with their time and experience.