Asking for the Gift: A Discussion with Frank P. Wendt | Sharpe Group
Posted May 1st, 1998

Asking for the Gift: A Discussion with Frank P. Wendt

Frank Wendt is the retired chairman of John Nuveen & Company, one of the world’s largest creators of tax-free investment opportunities. Retired since 1988, Mr. Wendt has served on many not-for-profit boards and chaired campaigns for several educational institutions. This month we continue a series of interviews with nonprofit leaders which began with Give & Take’s talk with Cornell’s Dave Dunlop in the January and February issues. In this interview with Tim Sharpe, Mr. Wendt adds the benefit of his many years of experience as a volunteer leader and fundraiser.

Sharpe: Nuveen’s Closed-end Municipal Bond Fund offered in 1987 was the largest initial public stock offering (IPO) in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. How has your experience in the business world helped you as a solicitor, and donor, of major gifts?

Wendt: My business experience taught me to treat major donors the same way in which my firm treated its customers during my 40-year career. Several thousand of the top customers (brokers) were given my unlisted number so they could reach me personally if they had a problem with one of our products. I made certain any problems were resolved immediately. Much in the way Dave Dunlop suggested in your earlier interviews, we became our customers’ friends and advocates. In my work for charities, I have found that becoming friends with your donors is critical as well.

Sharpe: Linking the financial world to philanthropy, how do you think people balance a natural need to give with their understandable desire to accumulate wealth for security?

Wendt: Dr. Peter Gomes, chaplain of Harvard University, makes the observation that charitable giving is, in a way, unnatural. Everyone–our parents, banks, stockbrokers, etc.–tells us to save for the inevitable rainy day. Someone gives us a piggy bank when we are quite young to instill in us the habit of saving. When we start our professional careers, we are often blessed with the security of company-sponsored pension plans. Indeed, I spent my 40-year career on Wall Street showing people how to save for a rainy day by investing in tax-free municipal bonds.

It is not surprising, then, that prospective donors may be taken aback when folks from charities tell them, “You’ve got it all wrong. You’re not supposed to accumulate treasure. It’s better for you if you transfer a portion of your assets to us.” Little wonder that fund raising is among the most stressful and challenging of all professions! Yet my association with fundraisers over the years has convinced me that it is also one of the most rewarding careers.

Sharpe: Given that most of us have been taught to save money, how do you go about asking people to give away large sums?

Wendt: First you have to ask yourself, “What is going to prompt the donor to respond favorably to my case?” Then immediately ask yourself if you are doing things that almost undercut the goodwill your mission has established. Let me explain what I mean.

One day I received a letter from a non-profit that said, in effect, “We’re delighted to have had your support, but please note that we’ve changed our giving level categories. The Patron level is now $1,500 rather than $1,000.” Why did the organization do this? Was there any additional value to me, the donor? Or did the organization simply need more funding? It is understandable that an organization’s focus will most likely be on their immediate needs, but such actions can stand in the way of creating strong relationships with donors. My wife, Barbara, and I continue to support this organization in spite of their development efforts–not because of them!

I think it important that you establish a rapport with the donor, something that cannot be done easily or quickly. A gift planner needs to learn as much as possible about a donor’s business and family background, not just giving record. You must form a friendship, and that is best done through listening. A good friend listens carefully and really cares about what you have to say.

Listening is critical in fund raising, both for the gift planner and the donor. One of the challenges that fundraisers face is making the donor want to listen to their organization’s story, to engage themselves intellectually in a project, to envision themselves as having the capacity to do something positive, to make a difference.

And it is crucial that the friendships you establish begin long before the next capital campaign. It takes time and cannot be rushed to meet your deadline.

Sharpe: What is the most common error, in your opinion, when it comes to effective fund development efforts?

Wendt: I am convinced that many gifts are lost because no one ever really asks for the gift. The subject is approached and danced around, but often it is not handled in a direct and forthright manner. The most difficult task for CEOs, trustees, and even for some development professionals is to get down to the specific case and ASK.

Sharpe: How do you suggest handling the thanking of donors and the ongoing relationship?

Wendt: I suggest you look for a multitude of ways to thank your major donors. In doing so, you are keeping them involved. For example, consider asking the recipient of a scholarship to write a personal letter to the donor who made it possible. If a donor has provided new computers for the library, a letter from the librarian may be appropriate as well as a note from the president, the board chairman, and, of course, from the development officer. Make a tickler file to thank that donor in six months, a year later, and so on, always letting the donor know how the gift has made and is continuing to make a difference. And please forget the form letters for this purpose!

Sharpe: How do you think charitable giving makes people feel–both on the giving and receiving ends?

Wendt: I’ve never met an unhappy donor. Development professionals know that a gift to their organization will make a difference. For if it didn’t, there would be no reason for their efforts. However, a donor is not likely to part with a substantial sum of money if the person asking doesn’t involve him or her with the organization’s mission. Donors need to know their gift is making a difference over time, and they need to be told again and again!

Sharpe: How do you see planned gifts fitting in to the overall major gift development effort?

Wendt: Planned giving allows organizations to help solve some of their donors’ problems by finding more productive uses of assets. There are endless opportunities, and in all cases the gift planner should see themselves as doing the donor a favor by helping solve a financial challenge while at the same time giving the donor the satisfaction of making a difference in the life of a charitable institution. That’s the real “magic” of planned giving.

Sharpe: What does it take to be successful in encouraging planned gifts?

Wendt: For a gift planner to be successful, the focus must first be on the donor’s needs. Security is uppermost in the minds of most donors. Think of it this way. When you accept a new position, you ask about pensions, health benefits. Why? Because you want security. A major gifts officer must be prepared to address a donor’s questions of “security.” Planned giving can help provide those answers.

Sharpe: Do you have any final words of advice for gift planners?

Wendt: Give your donors the benefit of your own personal research and hard work. Determine their interest. Be their advocate. Show them how they can make a difference to your organization without negatively impacting their own financial security. But most important of all–when you’ve done all of the above–be sure to ASK for the gift. If you have done your part, asking for the gift can be a rewarding conclusion to a quite natural process.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights 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 Sharpe Insights 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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