Posted July 7th, 2017

Treat Your Donors Like Family

By Nancy Jeffers

One of the bedrock principles in gift planning is stewardship.

I recently attended a gift planning conference in New York where I was reminded of the profound impact Sharpe Group has had over its 54-year history. The opening speaker at the conference has been a friend of ours for many years. When we greeted one another, he remarked that he’d recently been reminded of something he learned at a Sharpe seminar early in his career. He had never forgotten the advice and said it had always served him well.

What was that advice? “Treat your donors like family.” While the world of charitable gift planning has changed quite a bit over my 34 years with the Sharpe Group, one thing has not: The only people and organizations that rise to the level of being included in someone’s will are close family and loved ones—and a few favorite charitable interests. We should never forget that when donors include a charity in their estate plan, they are elevating that organization to the level of family. Keep in mind that these wonderful people have worked their entire lives to earn what makes up their estates. It is a very special thing to be entrusted with a portion of a donor’s accumulated assets at the end of their life.

From the beginning, Sharpe associates have emphasized the importance of continuous stewardship of donors who have included charities in their estate and financial plans. We
believe remembering this advice is one of the bedrock principles of building a program that encourages estate gifts. Embracing this idea will impact how and when you choose to communicate with and recognize donors, what appropriate “documentation” of the gift may entail and many other aspects of continuous stewardship with these donors.

Getting started

But what does it mean to treat your donors like family? And how do you do that? The answer is quite simple and begins with listening to your donors.

Helping a donor create a legacy is an honor that goes beyond a dollar amount. Developing a strong relationship with bequest donors requires a different mindset than many other development activities. Gift planning often involves an older age group and requires sensitive discussions about how a gift may best be structured. (See “Tips” below.)

Following through

After you and the donor have worked out the details of the gift, don’t simply put away the donor’s file and wait for the eventual gift. Remember that, by making the gift, the donor has revealed how important your nonprofit is to him or her. Your role is to sustain and possibly strengthen that relationship over time. Besides being the right thing to do, such a bond may also lead to additional gifts.

Also, never forget that bequests and many other estate gifts are revocable up until the time of death. Just because your organization is in a donor’s estate plans doesn’t mean you’ll stay there. In fact, many estates include gifts to multiple charitable interests. If one of these organizations never acknowledges the expected gift or doesn’t maintain the relationship through a continuous stewardship program, the donor may drop that organization in their final will.

And when it comes to a donor’s will, the final version is the only one that matters.

Tips to build and maintain planned gift donor relationships

Here are a few tips we have shared with clients over the years to help build and maintain planned gift donor relationships through a continuous stewardship program.

  • Know as much about these donors as you can. Listen to them.
  • Honor, celebrate and acknowledge them.
  • Communicate regularly with them and know the communication channels they prefer.
  • Regularly remind these donors how their gifts will help further your mission.
  • Be knowledgeable and passionate about your mission.
  • Include visits and phone calls when appropriate.
  • Help them clarify their gift objectives.

Nancy Jeffers is Vice President and Managing Consultant at Sharpe Group.

Donor Stewardship that Won’t Break the Bank

By Barlow Mann

As noted above, successful gift planning programs know how important it is to treat planned giving donors like family. But while building meaningful relationships with planned giving donors is vital to an organization’s success, so is careful stewardship of an organization’s financial resources. How can you treat your donors like family without breaking the bank?

Make personal visits

One suggestion is to strive to make travel time and resources serve multiple purposes. Coordinate visits to planned gift expectancies with previously scheduled trips to call on major donors or attend training seminars or other events. These “on the fly” visits don’t normally require a lot of planning. Simply call a planned gift donor to let him or her know you are in town and would love to stop by for a moment to thank them in person for their special support and perhaps drop off an annual report or bequest society recognition materials.

Pick up the phone

Personal visits aren’t the only way to steward relationships with important donors. Phone calls to thank them for current gifts or recognize cumulative giving or longevity milestones, invitations to events, personal handwritten notes, holiday or birthday cards and inclusion in a heritage society help you stay in touch and let donors know that their gifts are appreciated and have an impact.

Don’t forget about older donors

Some people receive a high level of contact because of their current giving level, but older donors whose giving may have lapsed still need your attention as well. A number of factors can keep older donors from giving as much as they previously did. It is easy to allow older, lapsed donors to fall off your radar screen, but make every effort not to let that happen. A significant number of bequests come from those who make their final will three or four years following their last gift. If a donor has previously told you they have included you in their estate plans, make sure they continue to receive attention from you—beyond requests for funds. Such attention now may lead to substantial rewards later. ■

Barlow T. Mann is Chief Operating Officer at Sharpe Group.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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