Respecting Donors Is Key to Gift Planner's Success
Posted December 1st, 2013

Respecting Donors Is Key to Gift Planner’s Success

catherine heffernan Catherine Heffernan is Manager of Major and Planned Giving at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1881, AAUW has worked for over a century to promote equality and expand opportunities for women and girls through public policy initiatives, research on women’s issues and fellowships and grants for women pursuing advanced degrees. Here Ms. Heffernan shares with Give & Take the strategies behind AAUW’s successful planned giving program.


Give & Take: What led you to a career in development?

Heffernan: My first experience with asking people to give came while I was still in college, reaching alumni as a student phone-a-thon caller. I was so successful that the development office then asked me to talk with major donors whose giving had lapsed. It was an incredible opportunity for me. I discovered a skill I didn’t know I had and also learned a lot about why people give and why they sometimes stop giving. I learned that for an “ask” to be successful, both the person asking for the gift and the person making the gift have to feel a strong connection to the organization.

From that point on, I knew that wherever I worked in development, I would need to be committed to and passionate about the organization. After law school and a brief stint in public policy, I had the opportunity to come to work at AAUW, helping incredibly accomplished women create a lasting legacy with an organization that many of them consider family.

Give & Take: How long have you worked at AAUW?

Heffernan: I’ve been at AAUW for a little over 18 months, and we’ve seen a lot of success in that time. In the past fiscal year, we were able to triple the number of new members to our planned giving society, The Legacy Circle.

The Legacy Circle Chairs have been very successful. In the year before we instituted that program, we added about 12 new Legacy Circle members. Over the following year, 42 people became new Legacy Circle members. It’s been really enjoyable to get to know these leaders and to be able to help them do something that they find value with as well.

Give & Take: How else do you communicate with your donors?

Heffernan: The Leaving a Legacy newsletter that Sharpe helps produce is one of our main planned giving communication tools. We also place ads in our semiannual magazine. Additionally, our Legacy Circle Chairs help us schedule events in different parts of the country to thank current Legacy Circle members and also to encourage others to join. At every event I’ve attended, at least one person has come up to me to say, “I have AAUW in my will. I didn’t think you needed to know.”

Give & Take: You’ve had great response to your newsletter. Why do you think it’s so well received?

Heffernan: The design is geared toward the more seasoned segment of our population. A lot of thought and effort was put into creating a newsletter with an aesthetic that appeals to our donors. We also make a point of profiling Legacy Circle members who are real powerhouses in AAUW and have meaningful stories to tell about why they are committed to our organization. Our readers look forward to those stories.


Our newsletters provide good information about how to make gifts that will improve future opportunities for women. When donors respond that they would like to learn more about making a gift, we send them a follow-up booklet provided by Sharpe. We have found that our donors value this additional information, and we feel good knowing we’re providing an important service.

Give & Take: I understand your program recently commissioned a planned giving program audit. What is the benefit of doing that?

Heffernan: A few months ago, our Sharpe consultant based in Washington, John Jensen, conducted an audit of our planned giving program, and it was incredibly valuable. A planned giving audit is designed to be a check-upof your planned giving program. It analyzes which donors and potential donors you’re reaching, where your gaps are, if you have appropriate procedures in place, how to find areas for expansion and how to construct proper messaging.

A planned giving program audit can be pivotal to organizations that want affirmation and confirmation of the work they’re doing. Planned giving can sometimes be a long game, and I think that’s my favorite part of it. It’s about building relationships and seeing them through, but that can be a very tough sell in many organizations whose leadership wants to see an immediate impact.


Having John Jensen walk into a board room with his level of expertise—with decades of in-depth data and analysis at his fingertips—is unparalleled. I have the support of my organization for the expanded outreaches of planned giving because of data that shows if we invest in planned giving now, we will be putting ourselves in a good position in the long term.

AAUW is based on research. We know that by investing in women at various ages throughout their educational lives we will empower them to do amazing things. The planned giving audit is just another type of research that shows we can do something meaningful in the future by acting now.

Give & Take: What do you like best about your job?

Heffernan: The donors. These women are pioneers in so many different ways and are filled with wisdom and passion and a desire to make things better. It’s a particular joy to be able to work with people who have been fighting the good fight for longer than I’ve been alive and are continuing to work to make a meaningful difference in the lives of future generations. It is an honor and a privilege to work with these women.

John and the rest of the Sharpe team help us keep the good work of planned giving in mind. They have done a lot of research that shows that people give because they feel compelled to give, because they are committed to a particular cause or passion or because they want to do something good for others. Working with Sharpe has helped me remember that. We don’t look at potential donors as “targets.” We work with donors to help them make a gift that is the best fit given their situation and goals. It’s been a real treat to know the work I’m doing benefits not just AAUW but our donors as well.


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