Wisdom from a Career in Planned Giving | Sharpe Group
Posted January 1st, 2013

Wisdom from a Career in Planned Giving

An interview with Jo Ann MacKenzie

Jo Ann MacKenzie, director of planned and special gifts for Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., might be considered a gift planning pioneer. She graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1969 with a degree in English and returned to her alma mater a few years later to create its planned giving program. Her commitment to Saint Mary’s has been honored with the Class Spirit Award, presented to her by the Class of 1969. As she prepared to retire this month, Give & Take talked with MacKenzie about how gift planning has evolved and what she has learned in her years in the field.

Give & Take: How did your career in planned giving begin?

MacKenzie: My husband, who is a French professor, was hired early in his career by Princeton University, so we moved to New Jersey. My first job in fundraising was in major gifts at Princeton while I finished my MBA at Rider University. We then lived in France for a couple of years where we directed the University of Notre Dame’s sophomore year abroad program. When we returned to Notre Dame, I joined Saint Mary’s and formally started the program.

G&T: Looking back, what are some of the changes you’ve seen in the gift planning field?

MacKenzie: When I started my job at Saint Mary’s, I attended all the Sharpe seminars. They provided me with a solid grounding in planned giving and I implemented our program pretty much by the book— effective marketing via mail and other channels, our bequest society (the Mother Pauline Society) and the advisory council.

Early on, my time was divided between planned giving and major gifts. Because there was nobody else on the road, I covered the entire United States! I met people who were interested, who had the ability to make a nice gift and who wanted to connect with the college as it was moving into this era of more sophisticated fundraising.

It was tough being the only person in the office doing that. But I found a lot of help. I met people through Sharpe seminars, and our consultant, Barlow Mann, was always there for me. It was never about selling “products;” it was about establishing the best program possible.

I learned that what Sharpe always said is true—the real essence of this undertaking is trust, relationships and honesty. The meat and potatoes will be bequests and the other things will come along. If you wouldn’t recommend something to your own parents, don’t recommend it to your donor. I heard that

frequently over the years from the Sharpe staff and I have found those are words to live by.

You need that honesty and willingness to work with people. I always keep in mind that I’m representing Saint Mary’s, always remaining cognizant of the donor’s goals and financial future, and what he or she is trying to accomplish overall.

G&T: What changes have you seen as a result of economic ups and downs?


MacKenzie: We’re small—just 1,600 students. When the economy periodically got tough and enrollment dropped, we had to learn to work differently. Our marketing became much more targeted. But we were still growing and our bequests were maturing. We’ve always kept going with mail, ads and other communication keeping Saint Mary’s in front of people to the best of our ability.

G&T: Your strategy must work. You received quite a large gift last year.

MacKenzie: The largest gifts we’ve seen except one have been through bequests, which gives a lot of validity to the Sharpe method but also to planned giving as an investment.

Last summer, what we estimated to be a $4.7 million bequest gift ended up being $6.7 million! Our largest outright gift was $10 million, but $6.7 million is huge for Saint Mary’s!

That gift was from a wonderful woman I had worked with in Atlanta and she never, ever told us the exact bequest provision, only that we were included in her will.

G&T: How have donors’ preferences for types of gifts changed over the years?

MacKenzie: Life income gifts have certainly garnered much more interest. The ability to lock in gift annuity rates has been very attractive to our older constituency. As I said, bequests are our bread and butter. At the leadership level, people are now talking about the charitable lead trust.

Many tell me they never thought something like the economic downturn of 2008 could happen, but it did and they are afraid it could happen again. They also tell me they thought they had everything taken care of family,grandchildren, causes and the future. Now there’s a sobering among people, I think.

I have also noticed an increased sophistication in our donor population, a demand for a higher degree of accountability. They want to know how our endowment assets are invested and how we operate financially; they ask very good questions. We have had to become much more knowledgeable about the investment side of our house.

G&T: What do you see as the most important element in a good planned giving program?

MacKenzie: Stewardship is very, very important in our endeavors. We send out annual stewardship reports on every endowment we hold. We are very transparent. We let donors know the market value for the previous fiscal year; we show their current contributions, the investment returns and the current value. With online resources, they now see their gift assets performing in real time, going up and going down. Most important, they see their gifts supporting a strategic priority in which they believe. That’s been very effective.

G&T: What is the best advice you have received in your career?

MacKenzie: That this is a people business. First, you have to be sincere and honest and engage with people. And you have to function within the limits of your knowledge.

Second, you have to be out of your office meeting and talking with people, following up and staying on top of everyone in your portfolio.

G&T: What advice would you offer to someone just starting out in gift planning?

MacKenzie: Credentials have taken on more importance. As an example, the very talented woman replacing me has a J.D.. She practiced in a large metropolitan area, working with high net worth individuals in estate planning. Her experience will help move our program forward.

Where I see the profession now, planned giving is no place for amateurs. Sharpe contributes in a major way by educating us through seminars, other presentations and white papers. Sharpe provides continuing education for everyone from the top down. The most important allies in your organization are your CFO and your president.

G&T: What aspect of the job has given you the most satisfaction?

MacKenzie: Oh, the people! Far and away, the people. Hearing them say, “I have always wanted to do this for Saint Mary’s.” Parents, trustees, professors and alumnae who give to the utmost of their ability because I went out and worked with them. They love this place and believe in it and want it to be successful.

G&T: What is the most common mistake gift planners make?

MacKenzie: Getting hung up and Sharpe always cautioned against this on the gift vehicle and treating it as a “product,” or either being afraid of the vehicles or so fascinated by them that they miss what the donor really needs. You have to really listen.

Robert Sharpe has always said, when you’re being put in someone’s estate plans, you are being considered as part of the family. Listen to what your donor is telling you. What do they want? What are they trying to accomplish? What is stopping them? What is their biggest fear? What matters most to them about Saint Mary’s?

What I learned from Sharpe gave me the foundation for how I would conduct myself in my profession.

G&T: What book would you recommend to others in the field?

MacKenzie: One that made a real impact on me was Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great. It’s about how you view your own operation, what distinguishes those very successful programs or companies from those that aren’t.

G&T: So are you ready to retire?

MacKenzie: I’m really ready. That travel is challenging. I drove a gazillion miles. It would be nice if donors were all in one place but Saint Mary’s is not like that. Our 18,000 alums are spread out everywhere.

I am now really looking forward to staying connected to Saint Mary’s strictly as an alumna!


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