Phyllis Freedman is President of SmartGiving and author of . For the past eight years her consulting practice has focused exclusively on planned giving. She previously has held senior management positions in fundraising for several large organizations. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: How long have you been blogging?
PHYLLIS: May will be three years.
MKC: What was your thinking on why to blog?
PHYLLIS: I’ve always had strong opinions – about everything, not just fundraising – and especially in planned giving, there had been some long-held views about how planned giving should be marketed and talked about and how donors should be stewarded, that I didn’t necessarily agree with and that my work with clients suggested might not still be valid. So I thought, why shouldn’t I start communicating my views more widely? As I traveled around in my consulting role, it became increasingly clear to me that planned giving practitioners were looking for a new point of view.
MKC: Were you looking to create dialogue or just trying to get your views out there?
PHYLLIS: I definitely wanted to create dialogue and I always try to encourage my readers to comment on my posts. I’ve invited a lot of people to do guest posts. And I do get some number of comments. I try not to take it personally when readers aren’t commenting. Some people push back on what I say, and a lot of people add to and enhance and expand on some of my views. So I think it’s been great for me, and I hope it’s been great for my readers.
MKC: Did you choose planned giving or did planned giving choose you?
PHYLLIS: Planned giving chose me. I started in direct marketing – direct mail fundraising back in the day – and had a long career as a direct mail fundraiser, and a career as a development professional. I was chief development officer for Paralyzed Veterans of America and also Special Olympics, and at both organizations, planned giving was part of the development operation. So I always had an interest in it, an exposure to it, an involvement in it. But then some of my long-standing clients whose donor files were largely acquired, upgraded and stewarded through the mail said to me, Will you take a look at our planned giving program, because we realize when we start to think about our donors as planned giving prospects, we communicate with them differently. That was about eight years ago; since then I’ve detoured to work exclusively on planned giving – really at the intersection of direct marketing.
MKC: You talk about the intersection of gift planning and direct marketing on your website. I was not aware that those roads were even close to each other, much less intersect.
PHYLLIS: I think a lot of organizations are putting the lion’s share of their investment in gift planning into direct marketing: newsletters, letters, even the phone I consider a direct marketing channel and now the web – and I think it’s increasingly important. Even though we want to get face to face with these donors – and we know that if we can develop personal relationships with planned giving donors, the gift will be larger than the ones from people we didn’t know about ahead of time – the truth of the matter is that 8 out of 10 people are never going to tell us that they’ve included us in their estate plan. The only way we’re going to get the message to them is by the usual means, which tend be direct marketing, especially for mail for the older audience, and increasingly, email.
MKC: Is this idea of doing gift planning through direct mail a new idea?
PHYLLIS: Not at all. No. The Robert Sharp Company, which was the first company I ever knew of that was offering planned giving marketing materials – newsletters – was doing that 30 years ago. Now, a lot has changed since then about the way direct mail is used, but it’s been around for a long time.
MKC: Are your fundraising clients resistant to pulling these things together?
PHYLLIS: Not at all. They see the value in it. They know the revenue comes. Maybe not immediately, the way it does for a direct mail solicitation. Many organizations I’ve talked to had a steady communications strategy over a number of years and started to realize good planned giving revenue from it, but then when the economy would crash – maybe after 9/11 with some of them or the more recent downturn in the economy – they cut back their planned giving effort. Now, a few years later, they’re seeing their revenue go down. They see the direct impact of it.
MKC: What’s the biggest challenge in planned giving?
PHYLLIS: I think the biggest challenge is convincing leadership that the investment has to be maintained, even when there’s no immediate revenue return. There’s always that tension between hitting the budget this year and investing for the long term. Planned giving is an investment over the long term. What’s happened a lot in the last few years is that organizations, in an effort to achieve the net bottom line they needed, cut anything that didn’t produce immediate return.
I also think one of the challenges in planned giving these days is getting people to try something new. I don’t think this is limited to gift planners. We’re all resistant to change. I read some of the Harvard Business School blogs, and one of the bloggers wrote about CEOs who, when someone comes with a new idea, say, Who has tried it? Who has it worked for before me? By definition, if it’s a new idea, it may not have been tried or proven. I think gift planners, like many people, stick with what’s proven. Yes, the vast majority of your overall budget should be going to proven strategies. But leave a little bit aside to try new things.
Especially as our audience changes. We’ve gone from the World War II generation to the Baby Boomers moving into our core audience. That should suggest to us that maybe some of the things we do should change. The elders, the World War II generation, trusted brand names; they didn’t really feel compelled to look under the covers. If you were the American Red Cross, they just trusted that you were doing the right thing. Boomers don’t share that view. They want the proof, they want to see the results of their investment. And they view it as an investment, not just a gift. They’re looking for intergenerational opportunities to connect with you. They want to bring their grandchildren to build a Habitat for Humanity house, or to go on a trip with CARE to see their work in Haiti or Cambodia. So Boomers are different than their elders. Increasingly we’re seeing people who want to interact via email, who want to arrange a talk with a gift planning officer through email, or get the annuity illustration through email. So we have to be ready for all that.
MKC: How well are your clients adjusting to this shift?
PHYLLIS: On the whole, they’re adjusting well. Again, in the end it always comes down to a resource allocation question, because everybody lives within a finite budget. So it’s how to find the right balance between continuing with the tried and true and trying the new. It’s a real dilemma, and each organization has to figure out what the right formula is for them.
You can follow Phyllis on her website.or on her
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.
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