Lindsay Lapole is Chairman of the Board of the American Council on Gift Annuities (ACGA). In addition to his work with the ACGA, Mr. Lapole recently retired from a nearly 35-year career in planned giving with The Salvation Army. Here he shares with Give & Take some of the effective techniques and valuable insights gained over the course of his extraordinary career.
Give & Take: We understand you just retired after more than three decades with The Salvation Army.
Lapole: I began my career with The Salvation Army in 1979 after working for a number of years with the Boy Scouts of America. I was hired by The Salvation Army as a development director and soon thereafter became the planned giving director. I was initially responsible for the Kentucky-Tennessee division and then the Florida division before finally settling in the Atlanta territorial office in 1986. I held that position until I retired last July.
Give & Take: And you have also worked with the ACGA for much of your career?
Lapole: My service on the ACGA board began in 1999, continuing a long history of cooperation between The Salvation Army and the ACGA. The Salvation Army is the only charitable entity that has been continuously represented on the ACGA board since its founding in 1927. I am currently Chairman of the Board, a position I have held since 2008.
One of the three tenets of the ACGA mission statement is to provide top-quality planned giving training to the charitable community, a service we have been proud to offer since 1927. For many years the ACGA was the sole source for guidance in the calculation of the charitable deduction and the other tax implications for pooled income funds, charitable gift annuities and charitable remainder trusts.
In keeping with this tradition, the ACGA holds a conference every two years to bring together planned giving and development professionals with the top speakers and presenters in the field. Our next conference will be held April 9-11 in Baltimore. This conference in particular will be a blending of traditional, mainline providers of planned giving services and new, fresh approaches.
Of special interest at this conference will be the announcement of the results of the ACGA’s 2013 Charitable Gift Annuity Survey. The ACGA has been conducting national surveys every few years since the mid-1990s in order to collect data and analyze national trends in gift annuities. This year’s surveys were distributed last fall, and the data has now been collected, the preliminary report is in draft form, and the tabulation work has been done. The findings will be made public during the conference. The conference will also feature the current report and recommendations of the ACGA rates committee.
Give & Take: You have a lot of experience communicating the benefits of planned giving. Which marketing approaches did you find to be most effective?
Lapole: In my years with The Salvation Army, our most successful divisions promoted planned giving on a consistent, almost daily basis through various vehicles to maximize exposure. They communicated planned giving through traditional mail, through our website, through seminars and through private meetings with donors and advisors.
I prefer to refer to planned giving marketing as prospect identification because that’s really what we are doing—identifying prospective donors. I never cared about the rate of response we received—just the number of responses. To handle those responses, I needed to make sure my staff was well trained so they could convert those responses into appointments and those appointments into gifts.
Give & Take: Many bequests intended for a charity are never completely fulfilled. In your experience, what are some of the reasons charities might not receive all of an intended bequest?
Lapole: I think there are two major factors that cause issues with estate settlements.
First, fundraisers sometimes choose not to involve appropriate family members and, in some cases, advisors in the gift planning process. In such cases, fundraisers may simply be honoring the donor’s wishes for privacy. More often, however, fundraisers are acting on their own fears that family members could halt the gift before completion.
What fundraisers should realize is that they will interact with a donor’s family and/or advisors sooner or later. It is almost always better to involve family members and advisors at the front end rather than to put off those conversations and possibly deal with antagonism or even litigation at the back end.
Secondly, fundraisers typically don’t have nearly enough documentation in their files during the gift development phase to defend the desires of the donor against challenges by the family. Suppose a mother of two leaves half of her estate to your charity. After her death, her son calls and argues that the gift is not what his mother had intended. It is easy to make sure his mother’s wishes are honored if you have detailed records of your interactions with her.
Give & Take: How does planned giving today differ from when you first started in the field?
Lapole: The main struggle I see in planned giving today can be summed up with this question: Is the goal of planned giving to help meet the needs of donors and their families, or is the goal to balance the institutional budget? Not knowing the answer to this question is why some institutions are in planned giving one year and are out of it the next.
I was very fortunate to work all those years with an organization that viewed planned giving as an investment in the organization’s future, not as a line item in the budget. Funding sources put in place when I first started gave our planned giving staff the freedom to do our job without worrying our program would be cut in the next budget. That’s not the case in many organizations. When the planned giving staff isn’t sure they’re going to be around next year, it can be difficult for them to communicate confidence to donors.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, donors make planned gifts in the belief that the charity is going to be around longer than they will. If there’s anything that creates a question or doubt in donors’ minds about the fundraisers who are visiting with them and the charity’s commitment to the future, the donors may develop some real concerns about making a long-term commitment.
Give & Take: You have decades of experience working one-on-one with donors. What’s the best way to get results that work well for both the charity and the donor?
Lapole: Donors respond to a planned giving approach because it meets a need, not because of the beauty of a marketing piece. Knowing this, when I meet with a donor, I am fully focused on the donor’s needs and objectives.
Imagine this scenario: You walk into a prospective donor’s home for an initial meeting. You know next to nothing about her. The first words out of her mouth are, “What I want to do is to leave everything I have to my family.” What should your next step be?
Many fundraisers would be put off by this statement, but they should know that it is actually an invitation to learn more about the donor. The best response a fundraiser could give would be, “That’s wonderful! Tell me about your family.” By carefully listening and asking for additional information where appropriate, you will often discover more about what’s important to the donor and will be able to see if there is a way a planned gift could meet her needs.
We need to reverse the paradigm that is at play in many planned giving officers’ interactions with donors. Rather than trying to discover what a donor can do for the charity, we should be asking the donor a different set of questions: Does your estate plan leave as much to your family as you would like? Are you communicating your values and beliefs through your estate plan?
Focusing on little things like that will help the donor and the charity have mutually beneficial experiences and will reinforce the important role planned giving can play in a charity’s future.