Have you ever paused and taken a moment to truly reflect on your professional journey? Where you started and how far you have come over the years…and reminiscing on that point in time were things ‘got real?’
For me, this turning point was in 2011 during my first few months as a newly minted planned giving officer. It was the equivalent of drinking from at least 10 (some days more) fire hoses. I cannot recall how many times the thought of ‘what did I get myself into’ crossed my mind. You get it, I’m sure.
It was sometime in November of that year when I attended my first West Michigan Planned Giving Group event. Figuring this would be a great way to get my feet wet, network, and get more comfortable with things. Lucky for me, the topic of the presentation was ‘The 2011 Year-End Tax Update.’
Deer. In. Headlights.
After the program wrapped-up, a good friend and colleague of mine (who just so happened to be a very experienced and well-respected planned giving professional) caught my eye from across the room. She came over my way and said, ‘You look really overwhelmed…are you okay?’. Honestly, I was really embarrassed that it was that obvious – I like to think I have a decent poker face. I will never forget what she said:
‘Don’t worry about all this technical stuff. It will come with time. You do not need to know everything to get started, in fact, you will NEVER know it all. What you need to focus on are building relationships and connecting your donors’ passions with their philanthropy. And remember, there are always people there to help you along the way. You are never alone in this journey; don’t be afraid to ask for support. Just take it one step at a time.’
To this day, I still call her my gift planning guardian angel. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that very moment. From that point on, I was determined to learn all I could about this thing called ‘planned giving.’ I dug into the basics. I built relationships with professional advisors and other technical experts. I likely may have broken the Google search engine with all of my online research. I attended seminars and webinars. I asked questions…lots and lots of questions. And throughout the process, I implemented. I got out of my own way and got over myself. I took messy action. Progress is better than perfection.
The bottom line is that you will never know what you think you need to know to get started in planned giving (or anything in life, for that fact, am I right?). As development professionals, we aren’t expected to be experts in all-things estate planning, tax, accounting, financial planning, wealth management, etc. Instead, we must strive to learn what we can from the technical perspective and then, and most importantly, focus on connecting our donors to the incredible missions of our organizations. The ‘why’ behind their philanthropy (passion and vision) is 80% of the process. The ‘how’ we make that happen (all the technical stuff) is 20%. Provide donor-centric service and get it right with that 80%, you’ll be on an excellent path the majority of the time.
My best piece of advice…just start. Do not wait for ‘the right time’ and do not worry about ‘having to know it all.’ Picking up the phone and simply THANKING a donor who has made the very personal decision to make a planned gift to your organization takes zero technical knowledge – it takes effort and consistency. An expression of your gratitude for their commitment will go a long way. Yes, you will be nervous through those first few conversations and will be anxiously awaiting a super-complex technical question to be thrown your way. But…when that does happen (and it likely will at some point)…don’t sweat it. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘You know, I’m not sure, but I will find out and will get back to you with the best and most accurate answer.’ Be enthusiastic, grateful, and eager to learn. You have more people in your corner ready and willing to help than you would have ever imagined!
And remember, keep it simple at the start. If you aren’t at minimum thanking your donors or presenting them basic opportunities to make a planned gift to your organization (80%+ of planned gifts are simple bequests!)…someone else will.
Now, let’s go…you got this!
Planned Giving Resources
Here are a few of my top planned giving resources that I have in my personal library. Starting with the least technical, these are all top-notch training and reference materials:
- Planned Giving in a Nutshell – Craig Wruck, 7th Edition
- Planned Giving Pocket Guide – The Ultimate Quick Reference – PlannedGiving.com
- Visual Planned Giving – An Introduction to the Law & Taxation of Charitable Gift Planning – Russell James, J.D., Ph.D.
- PPC’s Guide to Charitable Giving Strategies – Biebl-Ranweiler Portfolio Series, Thomson Reuters CHECKPOINT™
- The Right Side of the Table: Where do you sit in the minds of the affluent? – Scott Fithian & Todd Fithian
There are great resources out there specifically for donors who may need some additional support as they are considering their long-term philanthropy and planning and may or may not be working with a team of their own trusted advisors. If appropriate, you can consider gifting books like these to your closest donors. They are also great resources for development professionals to gain a better understanding of donor perspective:
- Give Smart – Philanthropy That Gets Results – Thomas J. Tierney & Joel L. Fleishman
- Wealth In Families – Charles W. Collier, 3rd Edition
Finally, if you are looking for an amazing opportunity to truly dive deep and expand your knowledge in the charitable gift planning space, I highly recommend the American College of Financial Services Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy®, or CAP®, designation. I’d be happy to share my personal experience with the CAP®. It was the most valuable step, educationally, I’ve taken in my professional career.
Please reach out anytime. Good luck!
Kristin Long MPA, CFRE, CAP®
Lead Foundation Specialist
Spectrum Health Foundation & Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation