Posted June 1st, 2004

When It All Works: Pointers from West Point

As Director of Planned Giving for the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Nancy Mathiasen faces unique challenges and opportunities. Here she shares with Give & Take how she has been able to give a special place to women at an institution that has been coeducational for less than 30 years.

Give & Take: What led you to a career in fund raising?

Nancy Mathiasen: After years of volunteer fund raising for my alma mater, Mount Holyoke, and other volunteer groups, I decided to try my hand at fund raising as a career. Early on, I worked with a number of organizations, hoping to find the right fit for me, and finally realized that I am best suited to working in an educational setting. About six or seven years ago, it became obvious to me that much of the future of fund raising lies in planned giving, and I decided to focus my efforts there. I assumed my current position at West Point and have enjoyed the opportunity to be of service there for the past four years.

Give & Take: What about working in higher education appeals to you?

Mathiasen: I like the idea that our work directly impacts the future. Everyone here feels that we’re taking something that’s good—a West Point education—and making it even better. The alumni I work with are passionate about West Point and feel a lifelong commitment to making the college even better for the next generation.

Give & Take: What is unique about working at West Point?

Mathiasen: West Pointers are trained to be leaders and see themselves as problem solvers, so whenever I have an idea, the graduates, staff, and I work together to figure out a way to make it happen.

But it’s not just the positive attitudes that make West Point special. Because of the nature of a service academy, the alumni I work with all had very similar experiences during their time at West Point and after they graduated. They share a deep common bond, and they are very proud of what they’ve accomplished as a group and as individuals.

Give & Take: Although your older alumni are all male, many of your older donors are widows of those alumni. How do you handle communicating with the wives of West Pointers?

Mathiasen: In dealing with West Point widows, I’ve found that, in general, there are two situations. There are those who remained at home while their husbands were away on active duty elsewhere. These women learned to manage all of the family’s business—finances, children, and most major decision-making—and as a result became very savvy and self-sufficient. On the other hand, there are those women whose husbands handled the details. These women are much more likely to feel overwhelmed after the deaths of their husbands and are in need of more financial guidance.

Give & Take: It must then be difficult to use a universal approach with the women in your constituency.

Mathiasen: It is interesting to watch their reactions to the mailings they receive from our office. Some widows know so much about their family’s financial affairs that they feel our more basic material is irrelevant. Others have a lot to learn. Often, these women are finding after their husbands’ deaths that they are left with a substantial amount of money and no idea how to manage it. Their husbands’ attorneys and financial advisors often give them conflicting advice, and they don’t know where to turn or whom to trust.

Part of my role is to provide guidance and assistance that is needed and wanted, especially to those who need the most help. I try to let them know that just because their husbands have passed on, their relationship with West Point can still be an important part of their lives. They know, as I do, that the Association of Graduates has their best interests at heart.

Give & Take: So you must find yourself doing a lot of one-on-one visits and phone calls.

Mathiasen: I do. And I’m really careful with the materials I send out. If I do mail a brochure or other form of mass mailing, I make sure that the brochure is filled with helpful information. And I attach a cover letter that says, “Quite likely you are already very sophisticated with your finances and know what you’re doing. If so, why don’t you come talk to me and I’ll use you as my poster girl.” And that strategy works really well. I’ve found that women who otherwise may not have responded love the idea of being able to help other West Point widows. They are willing to write letters to others for me or talk to other women on the phone, doing what they can to be helpful. As a result, my office has been able to strengthen West Point’s relationships with a wide range of West Point widows.

Give & Take: Do you see a difference in the gifts you receive from graduates and those you receive from their widows?

Mathiasen: Yes. The graduates are more likely to establish life income gifts with West Point to ensure that both West Point and their wives and families are well taken care of. These gifts generally come in the form of gift annuities, charitable remainder trusts, pooled income funds, and gifts of life insurance.

If the widow makes an outright gift during her lifetime, it is usually in the form of a one time gift in honor or memory of her husband. Substantial gifts more often come in the form of a bequest because these women want to do something in their husbands’ memory but are not quite sure they should give up those funds while they may still need them.

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Give & Take: When dealing with the men in your constituency, do you send out information on gift annuities and other life income gifts to a younger audience and information on bequests to the older group?

Mathiasen: Several months ago Robert Sharpe helped me design a matrix of West Point’s donor base, which we then used to determine age, gender, and wealth appropriate marketing strategies. We learned a lot by analyzing years of data on who writes a will, when they write it, when they let us know about it, the size of the bequest, and how soon after the will is written that West Point receives the bequest. We found, for example, that if younger alumni put West Point in their wills, the bequests tend to be relatively small. It is not until they are older—when they redo their wills at retirement age—that they tend to make more significant gifts.

I think it is more effective for me to market bequests solely to older donors. With the younger group, I typically suggest other gifts such as gift annuities that benefit their mothers or another loved one. They can then enjoy the tax deduction and the knowledge that they have provided a steady income for the rest of the life of someone for whom they feel responsible.

Give & Take: Do you have a high percentage of memorial gifts?

Mathiasen: West Point classes remain extremely close. The graduates spent four years here and then five, ten, or twenty years in the service taking care of one another. They feel a strong responsibility for each other and their families.

As a result, we see an extraordinary number of gifts that are given in memory of classmates. Some of them are fairly substantial, especially when they honor someone who died at a relatively young age.

Most widows make gifts strictly in honor of their husbands. Many have created a sort of shrine to their husband, and they want to walk with me through old photographs, medals, and yearbooks so that I can fully understand who their husband was and why he was so special.

Often these are the women who are feeling the most lost at the death of their husbands. I’ve had widows tell me that they spent 60 years “in the Army.” Most of them refer to their husband’s class at West Point as “our class.” While their husbands were alive and on active duty, their entire social world centered around West Point and the military, so it’s only natural that it still does after their husbands have passed away. I do my best to listen to their stories and to let them know that there is still a place for them at West Point.

Give & Take: Do you have any advice for those just starting out in fund raising?

Mathiasen: The most important thing any fundraiser can do is to listen carefully to a donor’s perspective. They each have a very different story and an idea about what they want to accomplish through their gifts. Too often, development officers go into a meeting with a donor thinking only about their own goals instead of the donor’s. When that happens, the donor can get lost in the shuffle.

Listen to donors. Find out what is important to them. Those are the things that inspire a donor to make a gift—not an agenda imposed by us.

Give & Take: What is your favorite part of your job?

Mathiasen: My favorite part of my job is when it all works—when a donor wants to accomplish something and I help make it happen.

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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