For this month’s “Gift Planner Profile,” we spotlight Mr. Blair Hearth, director of gift planning at Monmouth Health Care Foundation. With 12 years of experience in the gift planning field, Mr. Hearth offers keen insights about an often complex profession.
Give & Take: How did you begin your career in nonprofit fund raising?
Hearth: I am an ordained clergyman. One of the things that I enjoyed most in the local church and through my work running an urban ministry was fund raising. I eventually found myself looking to specialize in one area of fund raising. I chose to specialize in planned giving because it offered the best combination of intellectual stimulation and challenge to my skills as a listener. For example, you might be talking with a financial advisor about the fine details and mechanics of a charitable gift at one moment, then you have switch to the other side of your brain to talk with an elderly person who loves your institution, wants to make a gift, and needs an empathetic ear. I have enjoyed working in planned giving for the last 12 years because it has let me balance those two parts of my life.
Give & Take: What is the best part of your job?
Hearth: The very best part of the job is working with donors, preferably in their homes, talking about their interest in the missions of the institutions I have represented over the years. I enjoy listening to them talk about why their levels of commitment are so strong. I find it inspiring. It is not work. There have been times when I have left people’s homes and I wonder why I am being paid for this because it gives me such a wonderful feeling to be there. I have worked mostly for medical institutions and many people have had their lives saved or extended and for these reasons they want some part of themselves left behind with the institution. In my view this is the real heart of planned giving. Planned gifts are made from the heart, even though form can be critical. They are not typically made primarily as a result of legal technicalities or tax deductions.
Give & Take: What characteristics do you think are important for gift planners to possess?
Hearth: Gift planners have an unusual psychological profile. The person who is good at planned giving has to be very good with numbers and be able to comprehend a broad range of legal and regulatory material. A good gift planner has to have the intellectual capacity to understand and communicate various planned gift vehicles so that he or she can avoid making mistakes for which the institution will be sorry, but also so that he or she can gain the respect of the allied professionals in the community who may initially be skeptical of the planned giving officer if he or she doesn’t have the credentials of a lawyer or a CLU or a CPA.
The other talent that the planned giving officer has to have is the capacity to enjoy the company of many types of people. You must be able to interact with people and not only be comfortable with it, but to really have a hunger for that kind of human contact. The people that we spend our time with, especially older people with extensive life experience, know whether or not you really want to be there and are really interested in them. And if donors think you’re only interested in the technicalities of charitable remainder trusts and other planning tools, they are going to be very disappointed and less likely to make the charitable gift.
Give & Take: Do you have a personal “motto” regarding how you treat donors and friends of your organization?
Hearth: Yes, I do. The donor comes first, even if it costs you your job. If a donor has placed information in my hands that is confidential to the point where quite literally no one except for me and my supervisor is allowed to know that information, I am prepared to lose my job rather than divulge that information.
Give & Take: What are the biggest challenges you face in gift planning?
Hearth: One of the more difficult challenges to overcome is being able to make those follow-up telephone calls to people who reply to our outgoing mail. I have noticed an increasing amount of suspicion and cynicism on the part of many seniors who are overwhelmed by the number of telephone solicitations they receive and as a result of that and articles they read in senior citizen magazines they have installed answering machines and use them to screen their phone calls. An increasing number of seniors also have unlisted telephone numbers. Even when you get them on the phone, many times you’re the fourth or fifth person they have talked to in the last hour–and the other callers may or may not represent a legitimate charity like yours–so oftentimes the donors aren’t that happy to get your call. I feel sad that those who represent charities who have a legitimate right to contact these seniors are being mixed in with the scam artists.
Give & Take: What advice could you offer to those just starting out in planned gift development work?
Hearth: First and foremost I would urge them to spend some time every day refreshing their minds on how planned gifts work. I have heard many people tell me over the years that they have been to planned giving training seminars and after a short period of time they forgot everything. What you need to do early on is spend some time studying every day until you get to the point where you are very comfortable with how the vehicles work. You might want to use your planned giving software to walk through “what if” gift scenarios.
Second, I would tell people don’t spend all of your time in the office. As soon as you can after you are on the job, be sure to see people who have already committed to planned gifts, not only because you want to stay in touch and perhaps facilitate an additional gift, but also because these people have a key piece of information for you– why they made the gift. Once you learn your donors’ stories, you can then tell prospective donors about the various rationales behind the gifts people have already made to your institution. There is no substitute for getting this information directly from those who have made these decisions to support your current employer even if you have extensive prior experience, as every institution and the motivators that drive its donors are slightly different.