Making the ask, Part 5

By Todd Cohen

Over the past decade, Roger Ellison has made roughly 500 cold-call visits a year to donors, with every 15 to 20 visits eventually resulting in a gift, often after numerous follow-up visits and other contacts.

“Those are pretty good odds,” says Ellison, vice president for planned giving at the West Texas Rehabilitation Center Foundation in San Angelo, Tex. “I raised lots of money.”

While he selects donors to visit based on their history of giving to the foundation, and often on their age, he says, he does not actually ask for a gift until he gets a signal from the donor.

“You may ask for a gift when given permission,” he says. “To get to that point, you have to have built trust, and that is built through building a relationship.”

All conversations with a donor are “building to that point where a conversation about a gift is the most natural conversation one can have,” he says. “It’s just what comes next.”

During his first visit to a woman in her 70s who had made a number of $25 and $30 gifts to the rehabilitation center over the years, for example, the donor mentioned that she liked to give to the foundation’s annual telethon.

Ellison replied that he did not have much to do with the telethon, and then talked about his gift- and estate-planning work.

“She seemed interested and polite,” he says. “I felt like she had given me permission to tell her more.”

Before asking for a planned gift, says Shari Fox, director of gift planning at the University of Cincinnati Foundation, she spends time, often involving several visits, to get to know donors who have made gifts to the university over a long period of time.

She asks about their interests, career and family to “get a sense of what’s important to them and what some of their financial priorities might be.”

She also looks for donors’ “points of connection” with the university.

“It’s very individualized,” she says. “It depends on the evolution and development of the relationship with the donor.”

Mary Tambiah, director of gift and estate planning at Boston University, says requests for planned gifts often are the result of its extensive marketing of planned giving through testimonials in its magazine and in the newsletters of its constituent schools, colleges and programs.

And those units’ development officers now are asking for customized versions of the university’s charitable gift planning guide, she says.

“When people call us and express an interest in a life-income gift, we have a very high closure rate,” she says. “This is the key, to get people involved and engaged, and get them interested.”

Tom Smith, senior philanthropic adviser at the Vermont Community Foundation in Middlebury, says timing a request varies, depending on factors like the donor’s giving pattern, the type of asset involved, and the gift strategy.

Whenever it identifies donors who have made annual gifts for years, for example, a charity can tell the donors “how important the gift is to your organization, and wouldn’t they like to see it continue in perpetuity,” he says.

A charity also can ask anyone for a bequest at any time.

And it might ask for a life-income gift or charitable trust when donors or prospective donors have highly-appreciated assets they must or want to sell. 

Other stories in the series:

Part 1: Timing, trust key in asking for planned gifts
Part 2: Laying the groundwork critical before approaching donors

Part 3: Planned-giving program can begin with simple steps
Part 4: Nonprofits study giving patterns to identify planned-giving prospects
Part 6: Planned gifts can flow from conversations about other donor issues

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