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Gift planning gets push

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By Todd Cohen

Building on previous efforts to back local United Ways that asked for help, United Way of America is reaching out to 20 local affiliates to help them generate planned gifts and build their endowments.

Annual planned giving, including realized gifts, grew to $100 million each of the past two years at local United Ways, up from $32 million in 1995.

In that same period, local United Way endowments grew to $1.25 billion from $350 million.

That growth stemmed from efforts in the early 1980s by the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis to help United Way of America seed planned-giving initiatives at a handful of local United Ways, says Ed John, who just ended an eight-year stint as vice president of planned giving and endowment at United Way of America.

In tracking giving to local United Ways over the past eight years, he said, he found the local affiliates that realized the most planned gifts every year were those that had gotten a boost from the Lilly initiative.

“Planned giving is a long-term investment, and the results of activities 15 and 20 years ago are paying off today,” says John, now vice president of planned giving at United Way of Central Carolinas in Charlotte, N.C.

Had the entire United Way system embraced planned giving 20 years ago, he says, local United Ways would have “billions more dollars to be distributing today from their endowment funds.”

With Lilly’s three-year grant of roughly $500,000, United Way of America hired a planned-giving officer, targeted 10 to 15 local United Ways for training, and developed marketing materials for them.

Lilly’s message, he says, was that United Way had “to diversify your resources beyond the annual campaign and you have to start getting to know your individual donors and develop relationships with the donors, not just the heads of corporations.”

But despite Lilly’s initial boost, he says, United Way of America halted its planned-giving push in the mid-1980s, then revamped it in the late 80s before letting it lapse again in 1992 during the financial crisis involving former CEO William Aramony.

“This is not something you can start and stop, but has to be a long-term, on-going effort,” John says. “And sadly, in difficult economic times, planned giving was one of the first programs cut, but it’s in bad economic times that planned giving and endowments are needed the most.”

A key challenge in making the case for planned gifts, he says, is to overcome the common perception that confuses United Way’s annual workplace campaign with its mission of serving the community, and that assumes planned giving is a strategy limited to community foundations.

To gear local United Ways for planning giving, United Way of America created a program, called “Target Cities,” that assembled local leaders for feasibility studies and focus groups, tracked local giving data and potential, and developed “action plans” and local teams to build planned-giving programs.

While United Way of America offered that program to nearly two-dozen affiliates that asked for assistance, it now is recruiting affiliates to participate.

Cities that United Way of America initially has targeted include Anchorage, Alaska; Kansas City, Mo.; and Bethlehem, Pa., says Monica Estabrooke, manager of planned gifts for United Way of America.

“We have identified cities with extremely high potential,” she says, “and we are going to be working with those cities on a consulting basis to give them whatever resource and tools and expertise they need to increase their gifting opportunities for endowment.”

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