Giving Expression to Passion | Sharpe Group
Posted December 1st, 2009

Giving Expression to Passion

George E. Hellman is the Director of Planned Giving at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A former corporate attorney, Mr. Hellman left private practice to pursue a career in the nonprofit world—and he’s never looked back. Here he shares with Give & Take the extraordinary work of the Museum and the role his planned giving team plays in making that work possible.

Give & Take: How did you get started in development?

Hellman: I graduated from law school in the early 1980s and worked in New York as a corporate lawyer for about 10 years, including two stints at Skadden, Arps. Eventually, I reached a point in my career where I was no longer happy in private practice. At about the same time, I became active in the UJA-Federation of New York and began to think that working for a nonprofit might well be more rewarding. I started volunteering at UJA-Federation in the legal department and also enrolled in a certificate course designed for professionals who were considering transitioning to the nonprofit world. My volunteer work led to a position in UJA-Federation’s legal department, and in January 1997 I moved over to their Department of Planned Giving & Endowments. In October 2002, I accepted my current position at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and relocated to Washington, D.C. I have been the Museum’s Director of Planned Giving ever since.

G&T: Can you give an overview of the history of the Museum?

Hellman: In 1978, President Carter established a commission to examine creating an appropriate memorial to the Holocaust in the United States. The President’s Commission on the Holocaust was led by Elie Wiesel, and there were a number of other prominent figures involved, including several other Holocaust survivors. The Commission’s 1979 Report to the President recommended establishing a living memorial to the Holocaust that would not only serve as a memorial to the victims, but educate Americans about the lessons of this tragic history, so that they could confront hatred and genocide in today’s world. The Commission’s recommendations were accepted, and in 1980, the United States Congress unanimously passed the Museum’s founding legislation.

From the beginning, the Museum has been a public/private partnership. The U.S. government agreed to donate the land—priceless property right off the national mall—but the Commission had to raise from the public the $168 million needed to build the Museum. The public/ private partnership has since continued. Today, the federal government provides funds to pay for basic services, such as security, utilities, and federal staff. Everything else is paid for through philanthropic support, including the ongoing programs and activities that allow the Museum to reach national and international audiences—the Committee on Conscience, established to alert the national conscience when genocide threatens or occurs; the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, one of the world’s premier institutions for the scholarly examination of the Holocaust; the National Institute for Holocaust Education, which trains teachers around the country in appropriate Holocaust education methods, as well as leaders from the judiciary, law enforcement, the armed forces, and diplomatic corps here and around the world; and our Rescue the Evidence initiative, which urgently seeks to secure archival, testimonial, and artifact evidence of the Holocaust throughout the world before the eyewitness generation disappears. All of these programs and activities are made possible because of the generous support of the Museum’s donors.

Since opening in 1993, roughly 30 million people have visited the Museum and we have reached millions more through our multilingual Web site—almost 30 million thus far in 2009 alone. To put that statistic in perspective, colleagues who were here when the Museum opened back in April 1993 tell me that one of their biggest concerns was whether anyone would come! Furthermore, our current visitation is approximately 90 percent non-Jewish.

G&T: Can you talk about your planned giving program?

Hellman: When I joined the Museum in 2002, there was just one person assigned to planned giving. Now, I’m fortunate to have a remarkably talented and dedicated staff of seven individuals—a program administrator, a stewardship director, four planned giving officers including me, and one part-time staff member who is also a survivor.

We communicate with our donors through our Web site, e-mail, and direct mail—including Generations, our planned giving newsletter that reaches around 85,000 people.

In addition to these methods, we reach donors and prospective donors through educational programs across the country. We have a wonderful association with a major national senior living facility that likes to present high-end programs to its residents. After seeing one of our educational programs, representatives from the facility’s national corporate office approached us about creating an ongoing relationship. Since then, we have made over 20 presentations at locations throughout the country. The programs always feature someone from the Museum—a curator, an historian, an educator—talking about his or her work, whether it’s a new exhibition, a current research project, or one of our educational programs. Then someone from planned giving talks about our legacy society and various ways to support the Museum. We’ve reached well over 1,000 people through these programs.

Members of our staff make presentations at various events at the Museum as well. Our most prominent event is a three-day gathering each year in Washington, D.C., held during the annual Days of Remembrance, when the Museum is charged with leading the nation in remembering the Holocaust. These events culminate in an annual ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. It’s a breathtaking, somber occasion with remarkable keynote speakers, which have included sitting U.S. presidents, Colin Powell, and a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

We also have a vibrant legacy society, the Legacy of Light Society, for people who have remembered the Museum in their estate plans or have otherwise established a planned gift. Each year we honor these individuals with a Legacy of Light Tea as part of the annual gathering described above, as well as invitations to special events at the Museum. In late October, we held our first planned giving day at the Museum where we provided behind-the-scenes tours of some of our exhibitions and a private glimpse of our Conservation Lab. We invited members of the Legacy of Light Society and selected other local and regional planned giving prospects, and about 85 people came. We thought that was a tremendous success.

G&T: It’s amazing how much the planned giving program has grown in the seven years since you joined the Museum. In your opinion, what attributes should a successful planned giving fundraiser have?

Hellman: You have to be a ‘people person’—someone who is comfortable working with a broad spectrum of individuals. But you also have to be an exceptionally good listener. You have to be passionate about the cause. And—this is critical—you have to be honest and trustworthy. Donors often share highly personal and confidential information with you. They would be uncomfortable doing so if you lacked these qualities. And there are times you have to put the interests of the donor ahead of those of your organization and realize that it may not be appropriate for the donor to make a gift the way he or she might want to.

I feel strongly about the Museum and our mission. Educating people about this history so they can confront hatred and anti-Semitism in our own society is an extraordinary thing to do and a very appropriate way to memorialize and honor those who suffered and perished as a result of the most heinous crime known to humanity. And beyond that, the breadth and depth of what goes on here is really breathtaking and startling. When people realize it, they’re a little bit floored.

G&T: What do you know now that you wish you had known years ago?

Hellman: I wish I had known about planned giving earlier than I did. I would have tried to get into the field sooner! As a former practicing attorney, nothing gives me more pleasure than talking to lawyers about getting into planned giving. If people could have half the satisfaction that I’ve had by making the same career switch, I feel they would be very happy.

G&T: Do you have a favorite part of your job?

Hellman: I said earlier that a good planned giving person has to be a people person, and I guess my favorite part of my job is interacting with many remarkable people—both colleagues and donors. I love using my knowledge and skills to help give an expression of permanence to the passionate support of those we’re fortunate enough to have as our loyal, long-term donors. Not surprisingly, the people we work with are generally very interesting and very dedicated. Working with Holocaust survivors is a privilege and is something that is somewhat unique to my particular institution. I’ve gotten to know some exceptional, unique people—heroes, really.

Planned giving enables you to use your skills to help people give permanent expression to their passions. And if you’re passionate about the institution yourself, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying career path.

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