In this month’s gift planner profile, Give & Take talks with Ken File of the Delta Tau Delta Educational Foundation. Mr. File has been involved with the Foundation for the past six years as a major gift officer and as Director of Planned Giving. He currently serves as President.
Give & Take: What led you to a career in the nonprofit world?
File: I started right out of college as a member of the fraternity staff traveling the country, and I have worked continuously for Delta Tau Delta since 1981. I’ve found the involvement with both the nonprofit sector and with young people through education to be a very fulfilling career. That’s why I’ve stayed involved in nonprofit work for 22 years, with the past 6 spent in development work.
Give & Take: Have you noticed any recent trends in the types of gifts received in light of the uncertain future of the economy?
File: Based on my experience, people are narrowing their giving to organizations that have had a direct impact on their lives. Consequently, from our perspective, our core donor base is becoming more generous because many seem to no longer be giving to as wide a variety of charities.
Another trend we have seen is increases in gifts of assets, primarily in the form of stock gifts. Even though the future of the economy may be uncertain and stocks may have lost some value, stocks held long-term still have considerable appreciation, and we see donors continuing to give them.
Give & Take: As a fraternal organization, you have a natural constituency, but what are some of the best ways you have found to transition them from members to donors?
File: Direct mail is still our principal method of communication. Since 1971 we have been sending out a newsletter four times a year that gives an insider’s view of what’s going on within the organization. Four years ago we added our planned giving newsletter, Horizons. It helps fulfill a big need, which is telling donors how they might continue to benefit our organization through more effective estate and financial planning.
Last year was the first time we tried a year-end mailing. That was our primary response to September 11—doing an additional mailing at year-end. We included a Sharpe brochure on giving stock and other assets at the end of the year, and it was particularly useful. Last year we saw our annual fund increase by close to 11%, and we credit part of the increase directly to that mailing.
Give & Take: That’s interesting that you saw an increase in giving after September 11.
File: I think it speaks to some of what I said earlier about people narrowing the breadth of their charitable giving to charities they feel directly impacted them as individuals or society as a whole in ways that are important to them. Also, our donors see us as part of a solution to a need in society—the development of a good set of values in young people.
Give & Take: What do you think is the most common mistake that gift planners make?
File: The most common mistake is failing to plan. Too many development officers neglect to set very specific goals in the areas of major gifts, planned gifts, and annual fund for any given budget year. They may instead brush off last year’s plan, add 5%, and consider that to be next year’s goal. Instead, they should be constantly trying to look for new horizons.
The second common mistake is forgetting to ask for the gift. Too many gift planners feel that if they talk about all the good work that they’re doing that potential donors will make the natural connection that they should give. They forget to “close the loop” and invite them to be a part of that success in a very specific way.
Give & Take: What is some of the best advice that you have received in your career?
File: The best advice came from a major gift officer that I met on my first day on the job as a development officer. It was something like this: “Remember that the main thing is to keep the main thing as the main thing.” That’s good advice regardless of what job you may have—to determine what is the most important thing you should be doing right now and to guard against all of the minutiae in the development business getting in the way. There are so many administrative distractions in development work that can keep you from actually doing what’s going to move your organization forward—talking to donors.
Give & Take: That goes back to what you were saying earlier about failure to plan being one of the most common mistakes gift planners make.
File: For me, it’s all about strategic planning and leverage. The Sharpe company gives me leverage by providing professional, well-designed materials that I can leave with a donor that speak for me when I’m not there. The leverage is that I don’t have to create them. It’s a great fit for us. It’s the relationship that counts, not how much time I spend designing a nice brochure. You have to have excellent, high quality communications pieces. I’m always comfortable knowing that if I’m buying them from Sharpe, the information is correct, it’s well footnoted, and it’s got all the right disclosures so I don’t have to worry that I may be saying something that isn’t correct and/or advisable under current tax and securities laws.
Give & Take: Do you spend much of your time personally visiting your donors?
File: That’s pretty much all of my time. I probably spend about 30% of the year on the road. My goal is to make 120 personal, face-to-face calls a year. It’s part of the plan. That’s the level of calls I need to make to get the results we want in our major and planned gift work. Even though I have a core group of about 75 donors that I work with, I’m always trying to identify new people that we should be getting to know better.
Give & Take: As a fraternal organization, your donor base is automatically male. Do you attempt to interest spouses in your organization as well?
File: In my work, a relationship with a married couple is sometimes more enjoyable than working with just a single alumnus. When I make a call, I try to include the spouse as much as possible. It can be fun for them—something they enjoy doing. Philanthropy should be fun and enjoyable for both the charitable organization and the donor.
Give & Take: Since all of your constituents also have ties to a college or university, what sort of special challenges or opportunities does that provide for you in your development efforts?
File: I view it as an opportunity. If they were Greek, most of the loyalty that these alumni feel for their host institutions was created while they were members of our organization. I don’t see us in competition because the needs of a college or university are so great that our gifts are probably a smaller function of what the donors are already giving to the college or university. We try to work together with the institution as much as possible. There’s more than enough to go around for everyone.