During her long and successful gift planning career, Mary-Gail Smith gained a wealth of experience at a variety of local and national organizations. In her most recent position, she served as Planned Giving Advisor at Food For The Poor. Previous positions include National Director of Planned Giving for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, where she was charged with establishing the national planned giving program, and 10 years at the American Cancer Society. She also served as Director of Development at the University of New Haven. Here she shares with Give & Take some practical advice for building and maintaining strong relationships with donors and advisors.
Give & Take: In your experience, what approaches are most effective when interacting with donors?
Smith: Something I remember vividly about the very first Sharpe training I attended was a piece of advice from Robert Sharpe Sr. He said that gift planners should treat older donors as if they are their own parents or grandparents. I’ve thought about that many times through the years, and his words have shaped my interactions with donors ever since.
Gift planners have multiple obligations. On the business side, we need to secure gifts as soon as possible in order to advance our careers and the organizations we serve. On the human side, the planned giving donor is often a fragile, older person who is making important decisions about assets that were accumulated over a lifetime. Keeping Mr. Sharpe’s advice in mind has helped me stay focused on maintaining the proper balance between securing the gift that is necessary for my organization and striving to do the right thing for the donor.
Give & Take: A lot of fundraisers are nervous about contacting a donor for the first time. What is a good first step?
Smith: When calling a donor for the first time, remember it is never a cold call. You are contacting these individuals because they are long-term donors or because they’ve responded to one of your communications. The goal of the call should be to establish a rapport with the donor. You can then strengthen the relationship over time, and eventually the donor may feel comfortable enough with you and your organization’s work to make a deepened commitment to the organization in the form of a planned gift.
After you greet the donor and introduce yourself, the first thing you should say is that you are calling to thank him or her for past support. Next, ask the donor how he or she first became involved with your organization. As a fundraiser with access to donor files, you probably already know the answer, but this question goes beyond specifics about past gifts. It cuts through the small talk and gets to the heart of the donor’s passion for your organization. That’s the first step toward ultimately discussing current and future giving plans.
Give & Take: How do you respond to a donor who says, “I’d love to make a gift, but I can’t afford it right now”?
Smith: This is where planned giving really shines. When faced with this situation, you should assure the donor that you understand completely and then segue into this question: “Would you like me to show you another way you can help—a way that will help with your concerns about your future financial well-being?”
I would be very surprised if most people don’t say yes. That’s been my experience. Planned gifts can often be the solution to a donor’s concerns. They can allow donors to make an impact down the road without negatively affecting their current finances.
Give & Take: What do you think is the biggest mistake those in planned giving make?
Smith: Not staying in touch with donors who have already made a planned giving commitment. Fundraisers understandably become immersed in the process of securing new gifts and often forget to stay in touch with the people who have already included the organization in their plans. Always remember that donors can take you out of their wills and other plans with the stroke of a pen the same way they put you in.
I think it’s only human to think “this one’s in the bag” and try to work on new gifts, but you have to make time in your schedule to steward the people who have already made a commitment. It’s not just good business; it’s the right thing to do. You should thank them as long as they live and then, when possible, you should thank their family.
The other mistake I see fundraisers make is getting too technical with a donor too soon. Instead of talking about the workings of a charitable remainder trust, using terms that are likely unknown to your donors, gift planners should talk about the concepts underlying the gift plan and present it as a solution that will help donors achieve the goals they want to accomplish. Delving into the technical details too early can sometimes scare people off. Donors may decide that if they can’t understand the gift plan, that gift is probably not right for them.
Give & Take: What are some of the best ways you’ve found to keep in touch with donors?
Smith: A lot depends on the size of an organization and the geographic distribution of donors. One of the most effective ways I found to ensure I interacted with every legacy society member each year was to send a letter of thanks at Thanksgiving. I also made time to send a Valentine’s Day card to the widows in our legacy society with whom I had an especially close relationship, as I knew that Valentine’s Day can be a particularly lonely time for those who have lost a spouse.
Another terrific way to keep in touch with local planned giving donors is to invite them to events your organization is already holding. That way donors can feel connected with and informed about the organization, yet the planned giving department does not have to expend time and resources to travel or arrange a specialized event.
Give & Take: Do you have any tips for working with family?
Smith: Family members can and often should be a very important part of a donor’s decision to make a gift. A good way to get a sense of how much they need and/or want to be included in the planning of a gift is to ask the donor if he or she would like to invite any family members to your next meeting. Doing so gets the issue of family involvement out in the open. In my experience, interactions with the donor’s family are often delightful.
Give & Take: What about financial advisors?
Smith: Having a good working relationship with advisors is also crucial. You can’t necessarily expect estate planning attorneys or others involved in the process to secure a planned gift for you, but it is extremely helpful for organizations with large local constituencies to make sure the leading estate planners in the community are aware of the work your organization is doing. When donors let their advisors know they’d like to make a gift to your organization, you want the advisor to already be familiar with it.
The simplest way to make yourself and your organization known is to research the top advisors in the area and stop by to introduce yourself. Make time on your next trip to do the same thing with the leading advisors in other regions where you have concentrations of donors as well. And if you are aware that one or more advisors were involved in a recent gift to your organization, be sure to thank them for their assistance in facilitating the gift. A simple thank you can go a long way in this world.
The ultimate goal through these interactions with advisors is to have every estate planning attorney ask each client nine words that can change the world: “Are there charities that you would like to benefit?” If every estate planner asked clients that question, they could help a whole new group of individuals discover the amazing power of philanthropy.