This month’s Gift Planner Profile features David Comeaux, Director of Planned Giving at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. A 16-year veteran of development work, Mr. Comeaux shares with Give & Take his techniques for helping his donors fulfill their desire to give.
Give & Take: What led you to a career in development?
David Comeaux: I graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with a degree in business in 1986. The following year the University created a position in annual giving, and one of the deans in student affairs encouraged me to apply for the job. At the time I knew nothing about development work—I had to ask him what annual giving was!
Since then I have worked in a number of roles, and ten years later, in 1996, I had the opportunity to help start the University’s planned giving program.
Give & Take: What about your work inspires you?
Comeaux: I like helping people feel good about themselves and their contribution to the world.
Most people don’t wake up thinking, “Whom am I going to give money to today?” They have to be shown the opportunities. Without the education we provide about planned giving, many people would not understand how they can make a positive impact on the future.
Give & Take: You’re right about the importance of educating donors. How do you go about that?
Comeaux: We have a relatively small development office—three people, including myself—and a relatively limited budget as well. Because of that, we have tried to get our message out via stories, ads, and testimonials in existing University publications.
We include information about our endowment program and our Heritage Society in gift acknowledgment receipts. That has brought good results, including some major outright gifts.
When the occasion warrants, we also send special opportunity mailings to explain major tax law or other changes that might affect our donors’ estate plans. One of these mailings led to a lead trust gift currently in the last stages.
Give & Take: Can you elaborate on that recent gift?
Comeaux: After the 2001 Tax Act was passed, we mailed Sharpe’s booklet “Charitable Giving After the 2001 Tax Act” to our top 200 donors and prospective donors. In the accompanying cover letter we thanked them for their past support and suggested that they review their plans in light of recent tax legislation.
The next month one of these donors contacted us about establishing a charitable lead trust, which he had learned about through the booklet. At the time he had a pending business transaction that he hoped would allow him to set up a lead trust by the end of the year. In late December we learned that, though he was still very interested, he would not be able to make the gift that year.
It was not until the last quarter of 2002 that we heard from him again. He told us that he hoped to complete the gift by year-end, but again, circumstances did not allow him to complete the gift.
In early 2003 the donor contacted us again, and now the gift is finally near completion. We have been working closely with his son-in-law, who is a professional advisor and is excited about the gift as well.
Through this long process the donor’s family—including potential heirs—have not only been supportive of the decision to make the gift but are actually participating in the process.
Although this gift has taken some time to reach completion, it is now significantly more than the amount originally discussed in 2001. And Louisiana’s state matching program means that this $1 million gift will in effect almost double again.
Give & Take: What do you do after a gift?
Comeaux: When our current Director of Development, John T. Landry, started the major gift program here in 1990, he created a thankyou memo for every major and planned gift. This memo is distributed to various University representatives, our top volunteer leaders, and the President of the Foundation. A note at the top contains details about the gift and the donor. Below that is a check-off list whereby various University officials are requested to thank the donor for the gift. Some donors might get a letter or a call from five to ten people for each gift.
We have actually had people call here and comment positively on how many times they have been thanked for their gift!
Give & Take: Why do you believe people make charitable gifts?
Comeaux: Some people assume that tax benefits are the primary motivator of charitable gifts. But I’ve been raising funds now for 16 years and have found that is rarely the sole reason.
I think people decide to make a gift because they feel strongly about the work of a charitable interest and want to do what they can to help. After the gift is completed, the good feeling people have inside—the feeling of doing something selfless and worthwhile—is what has lasting value.
Give & Take: What advice do you have for people just starting out in development?
Comeaux: The profession is all about engaging people in a nonprofit’s mission. Some want to be deeply involved and to thereby make a difference. Our role is to show them how. So, communicate, communicate, communicate! That’s the most important thing we as gift planners can do.