Russell V. Kohr, director of special projects at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago, is a “double” gift planner. Not only does he assist donors in making planned gifts, but he is also an avid planned gift donor himself. With over 20 years experience in development, Mr. Kohr shares his perspectives on fund raising and the importance of donor relationships in this month’s “Gift Planner Profile.”
Give & Take: Tell me a little bit about the Ravinia Festival. What is it and how did it get started?
Kohr: We are the nation’s oldest and most extensive summer arts festival. Ravinia was founded in 1904 by a businessman who had built the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad. In the beginning it was an upscale amusement park that was designed to attract more people to the area, which would in turn increase railroad ticket sales. Eventually Ravinia began to focus on classical music and opera.
After closing in 1911 and for four years during the Depression, in 1936 Ravinia was incorporated into a nonprofit organization that engaged the world-famous Chicago Symphony. Today we continue to showcase the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and also present dance performances, symphonic pops, jazz concerts, and much more.
Give & Take: How did you come to be in nonprofit fund development?
Kohr: I was formerly in higher education before I came to the Festival. I was asked to come head a program for the Festival’s Steans Institute, which is a professional educational program for talented young piano, string, and vocal musicians. I was engaged to raise money for the Institute’s new building and, after that, I focused on creating an endowment for scholarships.
I took this position at the Festival because for me it combined an interest in music and education. When I worked in development for higher education, I enjoyed the opportunity to become acquainted with students, and here at the Festival I have that same opportunity. To work on behalf of these talented young musicians is a joy. Even though they are here only about five weeks during the summer, you develop a bond with them and it is rewarding to then continue to watch their progress as their musical careers develop.
Give & Take: I heard that you started the planned giving program at Ravinia. How did you go about it?
Kohr: I approached the chairman of the Festival about ten years ago and suggested that we start a planned giving program. He suggested that I get together with gift planners from other organizations to see how they were running their programs before we jumped in. Having come from higher education, I wrote to some of my friends at colleges and universities and surveyed them about what they were doing. Then, from the input I received, I assembled a report for the chairman about how we should commence with our own planned giving efforts.
It has been an extensive position, especially since I have other fundraising responsibilities in addition to planned gift development. But we have had a planned giving program for 10 years now and we are proud of our results thus far.
Give & Take: I understand you have established gift annuities with some of your favorite charitable organizations. Could you tell us why you chose to make these planned gifts?
Kohr: My wife and I have taken out gift annuities with Ravinia as well as several other charitable organizations around the Chicago area. While our main reason for supporting these organizations is our charitable intent, we chose the gift annuity as a vehicle for our giving because it is helping us build additional sources of income for our retirement years.
Give & Take: What do you think is the most common error gift planners make in their fund development efforts?
Kohr: I think some gift planners push too hard. I just spoke with a lady today to ask if I could have lunch with her. She said she had some company coming in and then she was going on an extended trip and wouldn’t be back until August. She said if it was urgent perhaps we could just talk over the phone. I told her that our meeting could wait until it was convenient for her and could certainly wait until she returned. I have a tickler file to remind me to call her in August.
Gift planners shouldn’t rush things. These are important, sometimes once in a lifetime decisions that donors are considering, and we must learn to let things develop in their own time.
Give & Take: How do you think charitable giving makes people feel?
Kohr: In my experience I believe most donors are very proud of their giving. That is one of the primary reasons we have a recognition society, to let people know how much the Festival appreciates their gifts. We have an annual dinner meeting in the fall where all recognition society donors can come together and be honored. These donors are also listed in our weekly Festival program book and our newsletter, Quarternotes.
Give & Take: Do you think donors are becoming increasingly more educated about the types of planned gifts that they can make?
Kohr: I think they know quite a bit about giving through their will, but I still don’t think most know much about other planned gifts like gift annuities. Here at the Festival, we have many more bequests than other types of planned gifts. Maybe one reason for that is that most attorneys aren’t as familiar with gift annuities and other life income planned giving vehicles, but bequests are something they understand.
Give & Take: If you could give all development officers one piece of advice, what would you tell them?
Kohr: I would tell them to get to know the technical aspects of planned gifts and realize that learning about the best ways for donors to make gifts and educating yourself about planned gifts must be a career-long habit. They also need to really know their organization’s constituency. I once heard a gift planner from higher education say he began discovering prospects by starting with the oldest alumnus and working his way backward from there! This is a great way to get to know the history of their organization from those who have been there the longest‹while making sure that you are working with people at what may be the most opportune time for the success of your funding efforts.
At Ravinia we list “Silver Circle” [a giving society] members in the program book. “Silver Circle” donors consist of those who have given to the annual fund for 25 years or more. These donors, then, are prospects for planned giving, so they receive Quarternotes and, when possible, a visit.