Bequests are the Foundation of a Good Program | Sharpe Group
Posted April 1st, 2002

Bequests are the Foundation of a Good Program

In this “Gift Planner Profile,” we talk with Judith Pillon, director of gift planning at the University of California at Los Angeles. With 15 years of experience in the field of planned giving, Ms. Pillon shares her thoughts on the importance of bequests to a successful development program.

Give & Take: Tell us a little about your background and how you came to work in planned gift development at UCLA.

Pillon: I started in planned giving at my alma mater, Wesleyan University, in 1987. When I was hired, I knew nothing about planned giving. But my boss, Marvin Kelley, felt that I had the capacity to learn the business. I was older when I was hired—I received my undergraduate degree at Wesleyan when I was nearly 40—so perhaps Marvin thought I could more easily connect with older donors and build relationships with them. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve an apprenticeship under Marvin’s direction. Before that I worked with the Girl Scout organization and with an arts group in Connecticut, and I was a flight attendant for several years prior to completing my degree.

Give & Take: Is there a central element to your planned giving program at UCLA?

Pillon: I have always been a firm believer that the backbone of a good program is bequests. That may seem old-fashioned, boring, and behind the times to some, but bequests are vitally important. In fact, like most educational institutions, UCLA consistently receives more gifts in the form of bequests than any other type of planned gift.

Give & Take: Have any particular efforts proven more effective than others?

Pillon: I wanted to do something to enliven and strengthen bequest marketing, both within our institution and with our donors and friends. So I called on Robert Sharpe, Jr. Together we identified a core group to begin educating about bequests. We decided the initial communication effort should consist of a cover letter from someone who had already remembered UCLA in their estate plans. The leader of our First Century Society (planned giving recognition society), a young alum with both an undergraduate and law degree from UCLA, volunteered to write the cover letter. In it, she explained what UCLA means to her and why she had remembered the University in her estate plans. We included the Sharpe brochure “An Estate Planning Quiz,” hoping it would stimulate people to begin thinking about their own plans.

We had a very high response rate from that mailing. Some people wanted more information, some wanted to know the correct language to use if they decided to make a bequest. That is important for us—we want to know about those people who have included us in their wills who just haven’t told us yet. Then we can invite them to join our recognition society and do a better job cultivating their relationship with UCLA. These people may also increase their current giving over time as they develop a closer relationship with the University.

We then mailed another bequest package with a cover letter from a different donor, which had a very different feel from the previous one. We sent this mailing to the same list as before, and a different group of people responded to his message. We have found that various elements of our constituency respond to varying themes.

We plan to continue these types of bequest mailings, as it appears that the timing is right for different people to respond at different times, even within a relatively static constituency.

Give & Take: What are your strategies to encourage increased planned gifts in the future?

Pillon: We are going to continue sending bequest messages each year, whether they are in our magazine, in targeted mailings with donor-written cover letters, or in our planned giving newsletter. It is a very easy way to keep bequests on the minds of our donors.

To me, bequest marketing is like the white noise of a good development effort. You must always be telling people about bequests—how easy they are, how important they are.

We also conduct extensive informational and educational efforts aimed at encouraging gift annuities, charitable remainder trusts, lead trusts, and other gift planning techniques that appeal to many donors, especially those with significant liquid assets who can use current tax benefits and who want to increase their income.

Give & Take: What advice would you give to those who may just be beginning in planned gift development or who have other responsibilities including planned gifts?

Pillon: In real estate they always say “Location, location, location.” For a development program, I believe the phrase to remember is “Bequests, bequests, bequests!” When I talk with people who run a one-person shop, I always tell them to focus on bequests first. It costs pennies on the dollar to raise bequest money and that is the best place to start. Bequest development is among the most effective, most valuable of all forms of fundraising in terms of its cost and the good will and other benefits it generates. Later, you may want to hire a consultant like Robert Sharpe who can look at your demographics and help you determine and market other gift planning vehicles that may be appropriate for you.

I am seeing the benefit of my predecessor’s good work in educating donors about bequests. And I hope to leave that same legacy for the person who follows in my footsteps at UCLA in the future. That is my goal.

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