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Time seen ripe to embrace planned giving

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Elizabeth Floyd

Nonprofits waiting for the perfect time to start a planned-giving program may wait forever to take advantage of a valuable support source, development professionals say.

“A lot of people just never get started,” says Russ Williams, executive director of the North Carolina Zoo Society.  “I’d been the senior person in a good-size United Way Association, and we just felt we could never make the time to start a planned giving program.”

Williams finally made the foray into planned giving 20 years ago when a staffer on his three-person development team at the Zoo Society, which supports the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, suggested that perhaps readiness simply meant deciding you were ready.

Sarah Thomas, director of development at the Presbyterian Home for Children, a foster-care provider in Black Mountain, N.C., agrees.

“I tend to think that you’re ready to get bequests when you start getting bequests,” she says.

While nonprofits don’t need to be a certain size or have a certain amount of money in the bank to start a simple planned-giving program, they do need to have some good, sound legal advice, Thomas and Williams say.

A serious dash of caution is also important when handling unusual bequests like art or real estate.

“You want to be gracious and always be grateful, but you have to be careful that you’re accepting something actually useful to your organization,” Thomas says.

It is at these awkward moments, when on the cusp of receiving that “oddly-shaped, hard-to-sell piece of property somewhere,” that another key component of any planned-giving program comes into play, says Williams.

A gift-acceptance policy should document the types of gifts a nonprofit is willing and able to receive, and the manner in which it plans to do so.

While groups often don’t think of documentation until planned giving gets complex, a gift-acceptance policy is a good thing to have around from the beginning, Williams says.

That way a nonprofit won’t be caught off-guard by either a great gift or a donor seeking merely to rid himself of a difficult possession.

The Presbyterian Home for Children has developed a relationship with its local community foundation, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to handle much of the details of their planned giving.

Though she eventually would like to be able to process more complex gifts in-house, Thomas says her organization has found community foundations a good solution for out-of-the-blue donors with charitable gift annuities up their sleeves.

Both Thomas and Williams emphasize that moving into accepting more complex gifts on a regular basis doesn’t have to be a headache.

In the beginning, it’s more about finding a few good men or women willing to offer their services at an affordable rate than assembling an in-house arsenal of lawyers and finance experts.

“I’ve been here almost 23 years,” Williams says. “When I got here, we were five full-time employees. Now we’re 26 and still too small to have a planned-giving staff.”

Fiscal soundness is an important requirement as nonprofits move into more complex gifts like annuities.

“You do need to have enough money in the bank to afford annual payouts and be very stable financially,” says Thomas.

A final important ingredient to have in place as a nonprofit’s planned-giving program grows is publicity, but it doesn’t have to be fancy. It’s as simple as having a story and telling it, Thomas says.

It could be fanciful and compelling, like the Presbyterian Home for Children’s Hazel Jones Legacy Society, named after the little girl who gave the organization its first donation in 1904 — 13 pennies in a little medicine box.

It could also be a simple story in which donors may recognize themselves.

“We’ve got a quarterly magazine,” says Williams, “so we always drop some little reminder. We’re usually trying now to tell a story of someone who had given us $50 a year for 20 years and decides to endow that giving.”

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