Question: How does a rural nonprofit organization with no director of planned giving and virtually no financial support from the community where it is located manage to sustain its operations for over 60 years with a large portion of funding derived from matured planned gifts? That is what Give & Take set out to uncover in our recent conversation with Father Roger La charité, director of the Edmundite Southern Missions in Selma, Alabama.
A brief history
Two Edmundite fathers came to Selma, Alabama, in 1937 after Pope Pius XI made an appeal to American Catholics to take steps to help reduce or eliminate the poverty that affected a large percentage of the U.S. population during the Great Depression. “In a few years of work in one of the poorest regions of the country, they founded a Catholic Mission, established an elementary school, a hospital, a nursing home for the area’s poor, opened a clothing dispensary, and began other types of programs to benefit the local residents,” said Father La charité.
Today the Edmundites continue their work in Selma and the surrounding counties by providing educational programs including three elementary schools, special education, GED and illiteracy programs, as well as running day care facilities for children and the elderly and four rural health clinics.
The challenge of “out-of-town” donors
Due to the limited economic resources of the local area, as might be expected, the Edmundite Missions have from the very beginning relied heavily on the contributions of donors from other areas of the country where the Edmundites do not have an actual presence. “Initially our base of support was along the northeastern sea-board where there has traditionally been a large Catholic constituency and that has been maintained over the years,” said Father La charité. Father La charité reports that while there is increasing competition for the charitable dollar, the average size of individual gifts to the Missions in recent years is increasing. “We have an older, long-term donor base, mostly women, who are very loyal,” he said.
With most of its donors and friends living far from its home base in Alabama, the Missions spend quite a bit of time and effort on communicating with donors through the mail. “We are in the mail every three weeks,” Father La charité said. “Every one of these mailings is an appeal in one way or another.”
For years now, part of the Missions’ extensive communication effort with donors includes publications that focus on planned gift education. “To help keep the Missions fresh on people’s minds when our constituency is considering the charitable dimension of their long-range financial planning, we send a periodic planned giving newsletter prepared with the assistance of the Sharpe company to a select number of donors,” said Father La charité. “We offer a response card in the newsletter so that donors can respond and request more information,” he explained. For those who request additional information, the Missions send an appropriate follow-up booklet. “We also include a two-page article on planned giving in our regular Missions newsletter to keep a low-key message in front of the rest of our constituency,” Father La charité added. “The article will typically be on annuities, year-end giving, or planning an effective will that provides well for family and charitable interests.”
Planned giving with a limited staff
The Edmundites’ systematic and consistent approach to their mailing appeals and planned gift education has brought them enviable results for a smaller organization. “We have had some really good years in wills and bequests,” said Father La charité. “In the first six months of fiscal year 1998-99, for example, we received 85 bequests totaling $873,000.”
Even though the Missions do not have a full-time staff member who focuses exclusively on planned giving, Father La charité believes that his and the staff’s general knowledge of gift planning and the Missions’ personal approach to serving its donors is helping to make numbers like the above possible. “One of the things that we do is that for any gift of $500 or more, someone in our office will immediately call the donor,” said Father La charité. “That call might be followed up by another call from me and then a very personalized letter with a rather lengthy handwritten P.S.”
These types of calls have paid outstanding dividends over the years in setting the Edmundites apart from other organizations that don’t take time to offer special attention to special donors and, in fact, may not be acknowledging at all those older donors of smaller amounts who are the backbone of many bequest programs!
For the Edmundites, making contact with donors via telephone is the closest equivalent to personally visiting donors, as most of their donors are some distance away. It is during telephone visits that Father La charité and his staff further express their gratitude for donors’ gifts and strengthen the bond between the Missions and its committed and loyal friends. “We like to talk to donors and make it clear to them how essential they really are to the ongoing success of Missions programs,” Father La charité said.
Educate donors, again and again
Because of the long-term success of the Missions’ fund-raising efforts, Father La charité has plans to continue to improve the program. For example, he is considering establishing a donor recognition society to honor those supporting the Missions.
Father La charité also feels very strongly about maintaining the Mission’s planned gift education efforts. “No matter what we do we should be investing constantly in our future by promoting the concept of bequests and other planned gifts with our donors,” said Father La charité. “We can’t take the short view and concentrate only on current income. We must make a considerable investment in the future through planned giving literature and materials and other stewardship efforts that show people how they can extend the benefits of their charitable interests into the future far beyond their own lives.”
“Consistency in planned gift educational markets is perhaps the most important element of success over the years. No matter what else may change,” Father La charité stated, “we never stop promoting planned gifts.”