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Planned giving is planning relationships

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By Michael Easterbrook

Planned giving fundraisers find potential donors in a variety of ways. But once they’ve found them, success boils down to a very simple idea: Relationships.

“You need to learn about their personal situation, and you learn things about people one-on-one,” said Allen “Chip” Patterson, director of planned giving at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “So much of this is done as a relationship.”

Those relationships with potential donors, or prospects, often start when the prospect expresses some kind of interest in the organization, perhaps by returning a mailer or attending an event the organization has convened.

Financial planners, attorneys and others who work in the area of wealth management also refer donors to charities, says Nadia Yassa, director of estate and gift planning at The Boston Foundation.

The goal at the start of these relationships rarely is to ask for a gift, but rather to learn as much as possible about the prospect, including what interests they have, what they’ve done during their lives, whether or not they have children.

Patterson says one way he jump-starts the relationship-building process is by calling prospects to let them know he’ll be in the area, and asking to see them.

“You talk about the needs of the university, and how they can make a difference,” Patterson says. “You just have to get comfortable with them.”

In the early stages, the planned-giving fundraiser may know something about the prospect’s giving history, but Patterson says those histories tell you little about what the prospect will do in the future in terms of planned giving.

Recently, Wake Forest University received a gift of $1.5 million from an individual whose lifetime giving was in the low four-figure range, says Patterson.

The next step is asking for a gift, and gauging the right moment to do that is difficult.

“I don’t think there is any perfect moment,” Patterson says. “With a lot of people, I may ask them right away. Some people will say no, and that’s fine. Most people will say, ‘Yeah, I’ll think about it.’”

The relationship doesn’t end once the donor decides to make a planned gift. Sometimes, the relationships between planned giving fundraisers and donors can last years.

In a recent edition of Planned Giving Today, a newsletter for planned-giving professionals, one fundraiser recounted how a donor called him one weekend because her family room was flooding.

To keep that relationship solid, as well as a planned bequest, he went to the donor’s house and helped fix her sump pump, the article says.

The longest relationship Patterson has had with a donor goes back a decade.

An alumnus of Wake Forest University, the donor has expressed the desire to leave a gift of several million dollars to the university when he dies, but has not yet signed the paperwork.

Patterson says he sees the donor at least once a year, and talks to him often on the telephone to update him about the university.

“There is a good several-million-dollar gift there,” Patterson says. “But all you can do is stay in touch with him.”

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