In this month’s “Gift Planner Profile” we talk with Eric Schmelling, senior planned giving supervisor for The Rotary Foundation. As a fund development officer for an international organization, Mr. Schmelling shares a unique perspective on how planned giving is working for his organization both here in the United States and in countries around the world.
Give & Take: How did you come to work in fund development?
Schmelling: I had spent some time in Hungary while I was pursuing my Masters degree in Political Science. Following that experience, I knew that when I came back to the States that I wanted to work for an international nonprofit organization. I discovered that Rotary International was headquartered here in the Evanston, Illinois area. I was looking to get my foot in the door and found an open position at Rotary in the fund development department of The Rotary Foundation. Once I got the position, the people I was working with both here at Rotary and in the gift planning profession in general, and especially the Rotary donors and supporters, made me want to stay in fund development. It is a great profession.
Give & Take: What is your favorite aspect of charitable gift planning?
Schmelling: I think it is working with the Rotarians who are committed to the mission of The Rotary Foundation. Many of them are donors in their own right and I find that working with them and other families who have the resources to make a significant contribution to the Foundation is rewarding. I enjoy the personal side of planning gifts. That is what really drew me to this work.
I also like working with our large network of Rotarian volunteers that do the majority of the fundraising for the Foundation. I think this is one of the aspects that makes Rotary so special. We provide training for the Rotarians and then work closely with them to develop their cultivation and solicitation approach. We are very much reliant on their time, energy, and efforts to do fundraising.
Back in 1995, there was a new emphasis placed on major gift giving at the Foundation. That really helped energize a large group of Rotarians who work at the district and club level to identify, cultivate, and finally solicit donors for major gifts. Over the past six years a major gift culture within Rotary has been created. It is interesting to me when I go to professional conferences to hear some colleagues say that it is difficult to find volunteer input and participation. At Rotary, we are very fortunate to have volunteer participation at every level.
Give & Take: Can you describe some of the characteristics of a successful gift planner?
Schmelling: I think you must be an active listener. I also think it takes a good amount of organization and discipline. Another characteristic a gift planner needs is the ability to relate well with many different types of people. The other thing that I have found in talking with some of the more successful gift planners is that their ego really doesn’t fit into the gift planning equation— it is all about what the donor is trying to do for the organization.
Give & Take: Does the international scope of your organization pose any special opportunities?
Schmelling: There are close to 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide, and we enjoy a significant amount of financial support from non-U.S. Rotarians. Trying to bring people from all over the world, and many different types of cultures, together to develop a fund development program is a challenge. But as the world gets smaller and more people in organizations are looking toward how U.S. institutions engage in various types of fund development, I think that has enhanced our ability to work more closely with our international donors. We are currently working on a special effort to increase major gift programs in Europe, Japan, and Korea. We have been adapting not only our giving materials but our ways of approaching giving and donors. We are trying to be very sensitive to differences in culture while we educate donors about major gift opportunities. I think there is quite a bit of potential out there.
We are relying on the Rotarians in these particular countries to help us with this. For example, we have a Korean Rotarian who worked with the Korean government to ensure that donors there who made bequests to the Rotary Foundation would enjoy tax benefits. It is fascinating to think how Rotary is impacting philanthropy and charitable giving worldwide because most of the Rotarians are not only involved in Rotary, but they also work with other charitable organizations. So if they pick up ideas through Rotary, it is likely that they may take those ideas and implement them in other organizations in their country.
Give & Take: What is the biggest challenge you face as a gift planner?
Schmelling: The biggest challenge is probably time management. With 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide, we are responding to major gift inquiries on a day to day basis. We are trying to stay ahead of that and develop a program that is forward-looking rather than just reactive. Needless to say this is a good challenge to have.
Give & Take: How do you balance serving both your organization and your donors?
Schmelling: This is a tough question to answer. Intellectually I know there is a difference, and that sometimes the wishes of the donors may not be parallel to the mission of the institution. But I think that is where being a creative gift planner comes in. Often you can find common ground between what the donor wants and what the organization needs.
Give & Take: Is there anything that you have learned on the job that you wished you had known when you started out?
Schmelling: There is always a steep learning curve in terms of the technical side of planned giving. When you first start out, you need to know the nuts and bolts of planned giving and sometimes you focus on this too much. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of the donor’s perspective and goals and how to communicate effectively with them. But what I have found is that as you do the work, day by day, you quickly learn that you cannot really succeed in the long run unless you put the donor first.