Tia Graham is Project Director for the Planned Giving Capacity Building Project at Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Ms. Graham began her career as an estate planning attorney and has experience as a fundraiser in the fields of healthcare, education, community foundations and public broadcasting. Here she shares with Give & Take her unique perspective on the qualities of effective gift planners and why she knows she is in the right profession.
Give & Take: How did you get started in gift planning?
Graham: I worked for a number of years as an estate planning attorney, yet I rarely discussed charitable gift planning with my clients unless they brought it up. Then I went to a seminar that changed the way I approached my practice. The speaker advised me to make a habit of asking all of my clients about their charitable intentions. At that point, I decided it was my responsibility to introduce my clients to the concept of charitable giving if they hadn’t already considered it. That’s how I first became involved in planned giving, as an advisor.
Give & Take: At what point did you shift roles and start working in the nonprofit sector?
Graham: I was presented with an amazing opportunity to work for the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation as their director of gift planning. It was a perfect match! I had always wanted to work in the nonprofit world, and this institution was perfectly aligned with my goals.
I love talking to people, so it was a joy for me to get out in the community and discuss the mission of the Foundation. When you’re passionate about your work, it’s easy to talk about the benefits of supporting a worthy cause.
After a period of time, I relocated to the East Coast and worked as a gift planner first at Montclair State University and later at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Give & Take: How did fundraising in education differ from working in healthcare?
Graham: In my work at the universities, I felt I was helping gifted students succeed and was working to level the playing field for them in life. A lot of my work involved raising money for scholarships. I was a scholarship recipient myself, so this was my opportunity to give back.
Give & Take: I understand you also worked at a community foundation.
Graham: I worked for a period of time with the Community Foundation of New Jersey, focusing on the Newark community. I did some capacity building with local nonprofits and helped people re-engage with the city by establishing scholarships for students at their old high schools. I learned a lot of valuable skills that have since translated to my work at PBS.
Give & Take: Tell me about your current role at PBS.
Graham: PBS is an organization that I have been passionate about since I was 3 years old, learning my ABCs on Sesame Street. When the opportunity came to help PBS grow into the future, I couldn’t pass it up. It was a dream come true.
My position at PBS is a departure from my past roles. I am no longer a front-line fundraiser. I am focused on capacity building, supporting stations and helping to build and strengthen their planned giving efforts.
We’re working to aggregate resources from stations that have already been very successful with planned giving, and we are also receiving help from some peer organizations who believe in our mission. Our goal is to bring all of these resources together and then share and distribute best practices. There’s no reason why any of us should be reinventing the wheel!
Give & Take: What skills are critical to success as a gift planner?
Graham: I would say first and foremost, the ability to listen. We often miss clues in our conversations with donors because we have an agenda. We think, “When I meet with Donor X, I’m going to ask him for a certain kind of gift.” But we miss the mark so many times because we don’t focus on what the donor is telling us. If we instead listen carefully and put the donor’s interests first, we can almost always find a way to align the donor’s needs with those of the organization. Let me give an example: I once witnessed a fundraiser come back from a donor visit very disappointed because he didn’t get the donor to agree to the large outright gift he had in mind. He said that the donor spent most of the visit talking about how her investments were not paying enough in dividends for her to be able to continue making substantial annual gifts. So instead of talking to that donor about a gift that would work in her situation, such as a charitable gift annuity or a charitable remainder trust, he ended up walking out the door. He could have completed a very valuable gift with that donor if he had focused more broadly on how to best serve her philanthropic interests instead of the particular gift he originally sought.
Give & Take: What advice do you have for people who are just starting out in development?
Graham: Many people who are new to development work are reluctant to ask a donor for a gift. When that’s the case, it’s often because they haven’t identified the right people to ask for the right gift at the right time. My advice for these people would be to make sure you understand how to develop and inform your prospect pool. People are ready and qualified for different types and sizes of charitable gifts at different stages and times in their lives. Focus on understanding where a donor is in his or her lifecycle. If you identify the right people at the right point in their lives, it’s not difficult to ask them for a gift. When people are ready to make a planned gift, they’ll talk to you about it all day. Having that conversation should never be awkward.
I would also encourage development officers to invest in basic education and training about the various planned giving instruments regardless of their specific role. Donors are more and more sophisticated these days. You’re likely not the first development officer a donor has spoken to. Make sure you acquire skills that help you exude a level of confidence and competence.
Give & Take: What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Graham: People spend their lives accumulating resources and then at some point slow down and wonder what their lives and work have meant. I find it incredibly fulfilling to help donors reflect on their lives and shape their legacies. I was actually once with a donor when she passed away. She had been an educator her entire life, and she wanted to give back to the university that she felt gave her the opportunity to be a productive person. When I arrived at her house for a visit, I talked with her about her time at the university. She said it was the best time in her entire life, and she thanked me for the work I had done to help her make a gift to the university that had meant so much to her. It was then that she suffered a heart attack and died. I was deeply affected by that experience, and it took me a long time to recover.
A couple of months later, I got a notice of probate indicating that this donor had left the university the bulk of her estate. I think back on the many months I spent talking to her about her estate plans, and it’s wonderful to know that she followed through. The gift she made to her alma mater will help many more young and gifted people who come from disadvantaged homes have an opportunity to succeed. She was grateful to me for helping her make a lasting gift to support other young students.
After that experience, I knew there were few jobs I could do that would have a more meaningful impact. I knew then that I am doing the right thing with my life.