This month Give & Take talks with Charles Thomas, director of planned giving for Villanova University in Pennsylvania. An avid golfer and lifelong Red Sox fan, Mr. Thomas explains his philosophy of fund development and why building strong relationships with donors is key at any organization.
G&T: How did you come to work in the nonprofit world?
Thomas: My first professional experience was with Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly. I was hired to work on major gifts and planned gifts, and specifically to strengthen the endowment. During that time I received gift planning training from Robert Sharpe, Sr. This training gave me a strong sense of how gift planning should be done, and it continues to meet the test of time today.
Prior to my work at Little Brothers, I was in education—teaching special education classes as well as living abroad for five years teaching English as a second language. I have always thought that teaching provides a very seamless transition to the relationship building necessary in philanthropy. Philanthropy is all about relationship building, and I think that is also true in education.
G&T: Do you spend a good deal of your time visiting with donors?
Thomas: Yes, I think this is absolutely vital. I am traveling a fair amount and hope to travel even more. I also traveled quite a bit visiting with donors in my previous positions at American Printing House for the Blind and Phillips Exeter Academy. In fact, even though I have been at Villanova for four years now, I still continue to hear from some Exeter donors with whom I’ve had such strong, personal friendships. I think this is indicative of the types of deep relationships one can develop through philanthropic work.
Building relationships is what it is all about. I am still meeting and getting to know Villanova alumni. For Villanova donors, I am the bridge back to the University, an institution that these donors are very, very fond of, a place that holds seminal memories for them. In many instances, they have been away from Villanova for more than half their lifetime. So I attempt to bring the current Villanova to life for them and indicate to them that the school is still striving for excellence as it did when they were students.
G&T: You have been successful at a variety of organizations. What is the most common mistake gift planners make?
Thomas: I think too many gift planners are driven by dollar signs. I have a very naïve philosophy: When you take care of the relationship, generally the resources will follow. When folks are driven by the number of zeroes, or they approach the donor on a tax-driven basis, they are going down a dark alley.
Philanthropy truly is about giving. The gift planning officer can provide the expertise necessary to develop that gift, but the gift is, for the most part, about people wanting to give back. The discussion should not be driven by dollars; it should be driven by what the donors want to accomplish for the institution.
G&T: What inspires you most about your work?
Thomas: Two things. First, I value private higher education very much. I think it has been one of the lynchpins to what this country has been able to accomplish. Second, I am so honored to work with donors who want to give from resources they have accumulated over a lifetime to continue to make an institution, in this case Villanova, a very strong one. In the long-run, this provides for the betterment of society. I am very fortunate to be able to build relationships with such wonderful people.
G&T: Are there any particularly interesting gifts you have been involved with planning?
Thomas: One of the best examples of this donor-centered approach to fund raising would be two large gift annuities that eventually created the naming opportunity for American Printing House for the Blind’s museum.
A gentleman was at a VFW function with the husband of a colleague of mine who happened to mention that he worked at APH. He responded that he had heard of APH and he would love to do a tour. When I heard about this, we set up a private tour with him on a Saturday morning. He expressed a particular interest in the museum, which was under construction at the time.
After we did the tour, I then visited with the donor and his wife in Florida at their retirement home. Within six months of that visit, his wife passed away from cancer. The donor decided soon after that to make the gift that named the museum in memory of his wife of more than 50 years. It was the largest gift from a living donor in the history of APH.
G&T: What have you learned over the years that might help fellow development professionals in their work, especially regarding gift planning in the current economic environment?
Thomas: In what is a very challenging economy, I think that gift planning shines even more. When the opportunity is right, certain gifts can provide the donor with income and other financial benefits. These benefits allow the donor to make gifts that might not otherwise be possible. I would say that, in my 20-plus years in this business, this is one of the most challenging times. But the light shines most brightly when gift planning is done correctly, regardless of the economy, because you open up doors of opportunity that do not exist in other areas of philanthropic giving.
People continue to give regardless of the economy. I don’t see the giving spirit changing dramatically. I am the optimist.