Planned Giving Tips for Major Gifts Officers

“You know I love the school, but I just can’t make that kind of gift – not now and not any time soon.” It was 2009, or perhaps it was 2010. I was soliciting one of my top prospects – let’s call her Barbara – but it could have been any number of individuals or couples in my portfolio. Soliciting major gifts on the heels of the 2008 economic crash was not for the faint of heart, and rejection was de rigueur. As a major gifts officer charged first and foremost to return from road trips with cash or its promise, I was hearing replies like Barbara’s with increasing frequency.

Naturally, I did my best to discuss with prospects the value to the institution of assets given now as well as the reward to the donor of seeing one’s generosity in action. But in the post-crash environment, prospects like Barbara were feeling, as a rule, hesitant to part with assets. I needed to shift gears. Never having focused before then on soliciting planned gifts, I began meeting my prospects where they were. I changed tactics, gently exploring the opportunity of planned gifts: “I understand you’re not ready to make a major contribution in the immediate future, Barbara. Turning to the longer-term future, may I ask whether you have included the school in your estate plans?”

As human beings, let alone as gift officers, we’re generally hesitant to broach – implicitly or explicitly – the topic of another’s mortality. Most prospects, however, are more willing than you may imagine to discuss their plans for the future, and it is fundraising best practice to convey an expectation that any loyal annual donor or generous major donor would provide for the same institution in her estate plans. I was delighted at the ease with which Barbara engaged in a planned giving conversation and, in fact, how relieved she felt to be given an additional opportunity to support the institution. After many such conversations with prospects in my portfolio, I learned some valuable lessons about discussing planned gifts in major gifts appointments.

Incorporate Planned Giving into Every Prospect Visit

In the same way that you conduct a general check-in during each visit to thank your prospect for past support, probe the current strength of his or her connection to the institution, inquire about satisfaction with his or her philanthropic impact, and elicit feedback on and support for current initiatives, ask whether your prospect has (or still has) remembered the institution in his or her estate plans. If your prospect has made deferred gift plans, ask about the vehicle, the amount or percentage, and whether he or she may be interested in increasing the plan, making it irrevocable, or augmenting the intention with an additional planned gift. If your prospect, chagrined no doubt, indicates that he or she has not set up a deferred gift for your institution, lean in. Listen carefully. Your prospect is likely to offer an abundance of information about philanthropic priorities, family dynamics and future considerations, on- and off-the-table assets, and even health. These nuggets can only help you in your work. Alternatively, your prospect may ask you for more information about planned gift options.

Are your palms perspiring yet?

Don’t Sweat the Difference Between a CRaT and a CRuT

If you are not at all versed in planned gift vehicles, yes, get yourself some basic training. However, don’t become paralyzed by a lack of detailed knowledge. You don’t need to know the specifics in order to start what could be a most productive conversation. Gift officers should never advise a prospect in legal or financial matters anyway, so stick to what you can easily discuss – your institution would be thrilled to realize a gift when your prospect passes on, and your prospect should consult his or her estate attorney and tax advisor to explore how deferred gifts may be arranged and, moreover, advantageous. Offer to put your prospect in touch with an in-house expert at your institution, or refer your prospect to your institution’s website, where he or she should be able to learn more about the various planned giving vehicles and their advantages. Each planned gift donor will reap varying levels of value from different vehicles, so leave the decision to your prospect.

Avoid Discriminating Based on Age or (Perceived) Circumstance

Planned gifts are similar to annual gifts in that they are a philanthropic opportunity open to anyone. One need not be a senior citizen or a hedge fund manager to be a meaningful planned gift donor. Your millennial prospects would welcome hearing about how they can make your institution a beneficiary of their fledgling IRAs. Your social services employee prospects would enjoy knowing that yes, even a $10,000 bequest would make a difference (be clear, however, if your institution has minimum requirements for a deferred gift naming opportunity). Also, remember that not all assets are public – your prospect may seem to be of modest means but could have access to significant wealth – so talk about planned giving with everyone. Make each of your prospects aware that you would like a planned gift intention. Once an institution is included in an individual’s estate plans, it’s very unlikely to be removed, even when the vehicle is revocable. Although the gift size may fluctuate, most donors who decide to include you on the list will keep you there.

Offer Planned Gift Testimonials

Certainly, your institution has received a planned gift in the past. Find one or two donor stories in the recent or ancient archives, and arm yourself to share them with prospects. Talk about how the donor became connected to your institution, perhaps supporting it first in a modest way and later making a deferred gift. Talk about the present-day impact of the donor’s realized gift – perhaps a scholarship student or curricular program benefits. Telling a story about another donor who made a planned gift makes the process relatable and meaningful for your prospect.

Most importantly, be brave. Opening a planned giving conversation reminds your prospect that your institution accepts and values these types of gifts and reinforces the belief that strong philanthropic commitment lasts a lifetime and beyond. These conversations also enable you to collect valuable information about your prospect’s philanthropic circumstances and priorities. Above all, the discussion will emphasize that a planned gift is an extension of your prospect’s lifetime support, so that both her generosity and the institution itself will carry on in perpetuity.

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About the author

Elizabeth Kolb Farr

Senior Vice President and Independent Schools Practice Leader

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, joined GG+A in 2017 and, in 2021, assumed leadership of the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. Liz serves the firm’s independent school and higher education clients, supporting them in identifying and seizing opportunities for fundraising growth. She holds particular expertise in instituting and orchestrating…