Planning for the Future | Sharpe Group
Posted December 1st, 2004

Planning for the Future

This month’s gift planner profile features Morgan Dodd, Director of Planned Giving at National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). NPCA recently made a commitment to make planned giving one of its top fund-raising priorities. Here Mr. Dodd shares with Give & Take how NPCA is using planned giving to build an endowment for the future.

Give & Take: Have you always worked with organizations that have environmental missions?

Morgan Dodd: I actually started my career at my alma mater in the Georgetown University Alumni Association office. It was a great introduction to fund raising. After seven years at Georgetown, I worked for eight years at two arts organizations and for seven years with an environmental agency. But, as often happens in large institutions, my job there became very narrowly specialized, and I found that I wasn’t fully using all of my skills.

When an opportunity came open at NPCA as Director of Donor Relations, I took the job and shortly thereafter transitioned to the planned giving office. Planned giving has always been an interest of mine. I realized early on that to work with individual donors over the long haul I needed to learn as much as I could about planned gifts.

In my opinion, planned giving’s ability to enable donors to make a “gift of a lifetime” makes it the capstone of fund raising. Luckily, the leadership at NPCA understands the importance of gift planning to the overall health of the institution, and they are committed to developing that component of our fund-raising efforts.

Give & Take: How did NPCA’s planned giving department develop?

Dodd: In the early 1990s, NPCA decided to build its membership through more aggressive direct mail and telemarketing. We transitioned into planned giving by first creating a bequest recognition society, which we promoted both in our magazine and with individual donors. Next, after some market research and guidance from a national consulting firm, NPCA made the commitment to launch a gift annuity program.

In the late 1990s, consultants from The Sharpe Group conducted a planned giving feasibility study to determine the best way to build NPCA’s endowment. After reviewing bequest income from the previous five years, Sharpe recommended increasing the planned giving staff to two full-time positions and expanding direct marketing to five mailings totaling 250,000 pieces per year. The goal was to create a substantial endowment in only a five-year period.

Unfortunately, building the endowment wouldn’t be so easy. Following 9/11/2001, due to the challenges of declining revenues that so many nonprofits suffered, NPCA was forced to make repeated cuts in its marketing budgets for planned giving. But the problem was also impacted by the way our budget was structured. In the past, NPCA had allocated the majority of our planned giving income for current operations. This year NPCA has developed a plan to gradually reduce NPCA’s dependence on bequest income for operations and to increase the portion of bequests designated to our endowment over the next five years. Costs of planned giving operations will be funded directly from bequest income, and the surplus will go into endowment.

Give & Take: Many of those in planned giving become frustrated with board members who don’t see the importance of having a healthy planned giving program. How did you gain your board’s support?

Dodd: In addition to the studies our consultants completed, we also confirmed through a membership survey that half of our members are 65 and older. This is an excellent age group to market planned gifts. Armed with this data, we adopted a more strategic approach, recognizing the need to invest in planned giving now. We convinced our board that if we pass up these critical years of increased opportunity based on our demographics, other organizations will receive the large gifts that will result from the distribution of our members’ accumulated wealth.

Another thing that helped to focus our board members on our vision for the future is the upcoming centennial of the National Parks System. By the centennial in 2016, NPCA’s goal is to be the catalyst, leader, and advocate of a national movement to protect our national parks—to ensure the parks have a stable funding base for both operations and to address the maintenance backlog. Adequate federal funding is critical to protect the natural, cultural, and historical resources of the National Parks.

Planned giving is one very important way to accomplish NPCA’s strategic program goals. By building an endowment, NPCA seeks to achieve greater financial stability by providing an alternative source of reliable income to fund our advocacy programs during those unpredictable leaner fund-raising years that may lie ahead.

Give & Take: How do you maintain meaningful and close relationships with your donors?

Dodd: We rely heavily on the mail. We also visit in person with major donors, but that’s a small part of how we build primary relationships.

We feel that it’s important for the planned giving program to have visibility in every publication, whether it’s aimed at a planned giving audience or not. Also, we include gift planning information with our general membership acknowledgments and gift receipts.

All of this is designed to supplement the effectiveness of our quarterly gift planning newsletter that Sharpe helps us develop.

Give & Take: Bequests make up a large portion of your planned giving income each year. How do you go about encouraging and discovering additional bequests?

Dodd: We place ads in our magazines and send out promotional mailings that Sharpe produces. These newsletters and brochures include reply cards that give donors the chance to tell us if they have included or would consider including us in their wills. When donors tell us that they have already included us, we call them right away to thank them and to invite them to join our national legacy society.

When donors indicate that they would consider including us in their wills, we send them an informational booklet provided by Sharpe. A couple of weeks later we follow up with a phone call to see if they have any questions or want to share any information. We see their response as an invitation to pursue a more meaningful relationship since they are considering placing NPCA at the level of a family member or close loved one.

We find that most bequest donors prefer anonymity during their lifetime, so many of the bequests we receive are surprises. The challenge is to try to give as many of our members as possible who do want us to know about their plans the opportunity to inform us. This gives us a chance to say thank you and to help cement very special relationships.

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