Celebrating a Milestone: A 50-Year Career in Philanthropy

This summer, Americans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic 1969 moon landing. That’s a milestone Cliff Lura has already reached at the American Heart Association, from which he’s retiring after more than a half century of service. Here Lura shares with Give & Take the insights he has gained through a life’s work at one of America’s leading nonprofit organizations.

Give & Take: Tell us about your career with the American Heart Association.

Cliff Lura: I started at the Heart Association in 1966 as an assistant director at a small chapter covering just three counties in northern California. Then I transferred to Riverside county near Los Angeles and was the executive director there for two years. In 1970, I became the executive director of the Alameda county chapter in the Bay Area. I transitioned into planned giving in 1991 and have been doing it ever since. My current title is Charitable Estate Planning Advisor.

Give & Take: What changes have you seen in planned giving through the years?

Lura: The concept of planned giving has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t always called that. I remember when it was called long-range gift development and then deferred giving. And then, of course, Robert Sharpe Sr. coined the term “planned giving” in Give & Take in 1972.

That’s the same year I first experimented with planned giving. Based on an idea from a training seminar, our chapter decided to produce a newsletter three times a year about the things that were going on in the Heart Association in our area. It was a 24-page newsletter highlighting educational programs and research. In it, we listed the names of everyone who had donated since the last issue and dedicated the back page to planned giving. We had a pretty good response in planned giving from those newsletters, but at that time planned giving was still a relatively small part of our fundraising efforts.

In 1991, when I began working in planned giving full time, I became the director of major gifts and planned giving for all of California except the Los Angeles area and was charged with developing a planned giving program for northern California.

Give & Take: Were you the only person responsible for planned giving in northern California?

Lura: Yes, and I had to start from scratch. I began by putting together estate planning seminars. The first charitable remainder trust I ever handled came out of my very first seminar. It was a complex gift involving appreciated stock and real estate, but we just took it a step at a time. Usually you can find a way to make a gift work if you spend enough time with your donor, and of course you always do what’s best for the donor.

Give & Take: Since the 1960s, America has seen major changes in family dynamics and demographics. How have you seen fundraising evolve in response to national trends?

Lura: Going back to when I started in 1966, for the next 15 to 20 years the Greatest Generation was very generous. The Silent Generation came next, but they haven’t had nearly as much of an impact. I happen to be part of this generation, and there just aren’t many of us. We were followed by the Baby Boomers. They are very different from the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation. They are interested in more sophisticated gifts such as trusts, charitable gift annuities and so on. They also seem to be more of a “me” generation.

I’ve noticed a lot more interest in having things named after them so they can be identified. It’s a very different mentality than I saw with the Greatest Generation. There aren’t many of the Greatest Generation left, but I’m still visiting as many as I can find.

I’ve also noticed that many more charities now are devoting resources to planned giving. They’ve come to realize how important it is and that they must make a commitment to planned giving over the long term.

On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of charities begin a planned giving program and then stop. That approach won’t work. A charity can’t make a short-term commitment to planned giving. It requires patience, and it’s well worth the wait.

Give & Take: What advice do you have for people who are new to fundraising and are nervous about asking for gifts?

Lura: It’s important to remember that you don’t “ask” for the gift; you “listen” for the gift. Your listening has to be active listening. Listen to what is important to the donor and evaluate how those things relate to your mission. Then it’s a matter of asking them what they would like to accomplish. Draw them out with questions about what kind of impact they want to have on the world. One helpful tip: make sure you have three or four of those types of questions written down so you don’t get so caught up in your conversation that you forget to ask them.

Give & Take: What do you think you’ll miss in retirement?

Lura: I’ll miss the contact with donors and my interactions with staff. I’ve known a lot of them for a long time. And, of course, there are many new staff members as well, but that’s to be expected. No one stays in one job for as long as I did anymore, but it was a life. It was my life!

Give & Take: What do you love most about your job?

Lura: What we do at the American Heart Association doesn’t just benefit one group of people. Our mission impacts everyone because everyone has a heart.

As far as I’m concerned, working in planned giving is the best job you can possibly have in the nonprofit world. As I said before, we don’t ask for the gift—we listen for the gift, so we end up being good listeners. Everyone loves to tell about their life story. All you have to do is listen. ■

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