In this issue of Give & Take, we talk with Tim Wierzbicki, director of major and planned gifts for Habitat for Humanity. Having worked in the nonprofit sector since graduating from college, Mr. Wierzbicki shares his strong viewpoints about fund raising in this “Gift Planner Profile.”
Give & Take: Why do you think you were drawn to the field of fund development? Was it something you always planned on doing?
Wierzbicki:I was always a student leader in school. In college I got my degree in public administration. So I have always had a bent for the nonprofit or public sector. I first became interested in nonprofit fund raising through a work study job in the development department at Minnesota State University at Mankato. It was really rewarding to see how your efforts could have such a broad impact on the lives of others.
Give & Take: Tell us a little bit about your fund development background.
Wierzbicki: My first job out of college, I became the executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. I applied for the job but didn’t think that I would get it. They decided to take a chance on me and things worked out really well. When I started with the ACLU, the Minnesota Chapter was ranked 36th out of 50 states based on membership and recruitment. Within 12 months, our chapter was ranked first in the nation.
A few years later, when I was working as director of development for the St. Paul Chapter of the American Red Cross, I was transferred to the national headquarters in Washington, D.C. I eventually managed major gift solicitations during disasters. We would be raising funds within hours of a disaster, so we were often on call 24 hours a day. This included talking points and strategy for Elizabeth Doles major gift solicitations.
Give & Take: You have helped plan some rather creative gifts in your career. Can you tell us about a recent gift that might be especially interesting?
Wierzbicki: I think much of fund raising is about “seizing the moment.” Recently while meeting with the chair of a public foundation, he clearly wanted to do whatever it would take to increase the number of people in his state housed through Habitat. I suggested that a leadership gift over a number of years would encourage others to follow. To the surprise of the local Habitat volunteers — and myself — we left the meeting with a commitment for over $30 million in land over five years. And so far two major cash gifts from individuals have followed on the heels of this leadership gift.
Give & Take: What aspect of your job gives you the most personal and professional satisfaction?
Wierzbicki: I really enjoy asking people for money and negotiating the terms of more complex gifts. I have developed a little bit of a reputation during my career as being the one to call if there is ever a difficult situation with a donor. I enjoy turning negative situations into positive ones. When someone is upset with an organization, our natural inclination is to step back and try not to infuriate that person even more. In reality, what they are saying to us is that they care. I’ll take a donor that is furious with an organization over a complacent donor any day. The upset donor is one that cares. I often use this analogy when I give workshops: I ask people to remember the first time they crossed the street without looking both ways and how angry their parents were. The reason they were angry was because they cared. Angry donors often care in much the same way.
Give & Take: What characteristics do you think a person needs to possess in order to be a successful gift planner?
Wierzbicki: As fundraisers, we are really the ones who come in and finish a process many others may have been involved in before us. To use a baseball analogy, other people are “pitching”, whether they are in corporate communications, administration, etc. But, as fundraisers, we are the “catchers” who have to take the opportunity to complete the process of realizing the gift. I recently completed a gift of closely held stock that was worth $1 million. That was not really something I made happen. This gift really started back almost 10 years ago when the donor visited a Habitat site and was extremely taken by the volunteers and new homeowners. So the entire cycle from exposure to gift with this donor took almost a decade to develop. This gift was really a team effort. I’m not even sure if a fund-raiser can ever say they solicited a gift “from scratch” because donors usually have contact with so many people from an organization.
I’m really sort of a nontraditional fundraiser in terms that I believe that program staff can be very active in soliciting gifts as a natural part of their interaction with some of the strongest supporters of our cause, and I rely on volunteers to assist in the final stages of the gift planning process. They put their seal of approval on a gift.
Give & Take: How have you tried to cultivate planned givers at Habitat?
Wierzbicki: What we have done at Habitat is merge the major gift unit with the planned gift unit because we realized that virtually anyone with the desire and means can become a planned gift donor. This took a lot of work, especially by Doris Hardy, our manager of planned giving, and Kay Langford, manager of donor administration. But it’s paid off. Cross solicitation and stepped up personal contact helped us meet the planned giving annual goal in just six months, while also increasing major gifts and keeping expenses under budget.
What I have found in going on hundreds of donor calls is that the largest, most generous gifts have almost all come from people who you never would have known are rich-they live in modest homes, drive modest cars, and truly are the “millionaires next door.” It can be a big mistake to organize efforts primarily around the discovery and cultivation of those who hit the “radar screen” because they exhibit the trappings of wealth.
Give & Take: Have you received any advice about gift planning that you would like to share?
Wierzbicki: Yes. In my first job, I was calling on wealthy individuals. Even though I was nervous and my voice was shaking, I kept on doing it at the insistence of our board president. About a month after I had been on the job, he blew into the office and starting asking everyone where I was. He sounded very angry and I could hear him headed down to my office. I thought this must be what it was like to get fired. He came in my office and told me that a donor had called him and mentioned how I had kept calling on him for a gift. Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “If I ever get another call like that from another donor…I’ll give you a raise!” From that moment on, I knew that I would never get into trouble by asking for money. It was very crucial for me to understand that at the beginning of my career and it has influenced me ever since. Fundraisers have to remember that what we are raising money for is a good thing and we are helping people “buy” something that is priceless once they realize they want it and see and feel the benefits of their generosity.