Local nonprofits work with donors for planned giving

IN GOOD COMPANY: Bequests take the form of money, property or other assets ranging from small sums to sometimes millions of dollars in value. Like many other nonprofits, the YWCA of Asheville has set up a legacy society to honor and thank those who remember the organization in their end-of-life financial planning. The society is named for E. Thelma Caldwell, pictured, a pivotal leader in the YWCA’s history. Photo courtesy of the Asheville YWCA Photograph Collection located in the D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections at UNC Asheville

They say you can’t take it with you, but what will your money do without you after you’re gone? Many local nonprofits would like you to consider them as you ponder that question.

“Most people want to take care of people first,” says Sheryl Aikman, vice president of development for the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. But once the debts are paid and people supported, she adds, what’s left “could create some good in the world and good for the organizations that have touched us or that we care about … and that doesn’t change anything about how you live now.”

Aikman helps people structure their giving to charitable causes, and in some cases, that means gifts after their lifetimes are over. Planned giving can take many different forms, but the most common is a gift someone makes through a will or living trust. These transactions take place after the donors dies.

According to GuideStar, a service that reports on nonprofits, the average bequest in the U.S. was $32,000 in 2010. That same year, as reported by The Nonprofit Times, Americans donated $22.83 billion in bequests. And Blackbaud, a fundraising tool and resource company, presented research in 2011 showing that the money is inexpensive to raise: Each dollar of bequest costs 3-15 cents in fundraising expenses. That ratio attracts both nonprofits and donors who want more of their money to support programs rather than overhead costs.

Large local nonprofits such as colleges and their foundations, the CFWNC and Mission Health have long had their affairs in order for planned giving. Other area nonprofits are in the early stages of organizing their approaches to securing planned gifts or don’t pursue them at all, but many recognize the importance that bequests can have.

Broaching the subject

When Julie Heinitsh started her career in fundraising, she thought the complexities of tax law would keep her from working in planned giving. She came to discover, however, that her job was more about explaining options and listening to goals than giving any legal or financial advice.

“It’s more about the relationship and being able to talk in concept with donors about the different ways they can use their assets to make gifts,” Heinitsh says. Once donors are on board with the idea of planned giving, she can refer them to discuss the options with their legal and financial advisers. She has worked in planned giving for both Mars Hill University and UNCA, and she now handles major gifts for Eliada Homes.

Those conversations are getting easier, says Aikman, because baby boomers are reaching the age at which they start thinking about where their assets will go if they have more than they need at the ends of their lives. She’s found that older, financially successful people tend to start reflecting on their greater social impact. “[They want their success] to be of significance, and that  sense lends itself to thinking about how they might use the assets they’ve accumulated to do something good for causes they care about,” Aikman explains.

Aikman finds that most donors start the process of planning a gift because some life event has caused them to think about their money differently. A windfall, sale of a house or business, retirement or child leaving the home can all push them to begin the discussion. Aikman thus starts by asking donors about their motivations,  personal causes and goals.

“Maybe it’s about family values; maybe it’s about the asset that they want to use to make a gift. Maybe it’s about planning for a gift now that will be realized later,” Aikman says “But they want to make sure that the plan is in place and that what they want to have happen will happen.”

Love and Surprises

GIFT MASTER: In her position at the Community Foundation of WNC, Sheryl Aikman works with donors to connect them to the causes and goals they value the most and offers insight into how they might plan their support, including bequests. Photo courtesy of Aikman
GIFT MASTER: In her position at the Community Foundation of WNC, Sheryl Aikman works
with donors to connect them to the causes and goals they value the most and offers insight
into how they might plan their support, including bequests. Photo courtesy of Aikman

Aikman notes that people tend to designate planned gifts for organizations with which they’ve long volunteered or participated. Compared to the broader range of regular giving, final gifts usually go to a donor’s very dearest one or two organizations as an act of legacy.

“All of us have lots of elements to our story,” Aikman muses, “but the last gifts that you make are a really important part. … A gift at the end of your life is a way to tell a little bit more of your story.”

David Bailey, CEO of the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, finds planned gifts particularly significant because of the thoughtfulness required to make them. Donors must take a step back from their personal end-of-life planning and think of the greater good, with an eye toward the lasting impact they’d like to have decades down the road, he says.

Bailey concedes that there is plenty of science in soliciting planned gifts. “But it’s also very much an art,” he adds. “You never know when you touch somebody and they just say, ‘I believe in that.’”

These unexpected connections can yield equally unexpected bequests. Heinitsh estimates that up to 70 percent of estate gifts are made without informing the organization in advance. Donors may not notify their future recipients out of privacy concerns or to avoid additional solicitation.

While fundraisers are thankful for the unexpected windfalls, Heinitsh suggests that all parties benefit from advance notice of bequests. Nonprofits can properly thank and recognize their patrons, while donors can clarify exactly how they’d like their gifts to be used. They may even have the opportunity to see in their lifetime what they will be supporting when they are gone.

Pauline Heyne, director of philanthropy for the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy,  says that her group has received several significant gifts from previously unknown sources. “They’ve never been a donor with the organization, and all of a sudden we have a gift from this person who we never got a chance to meet or thank,” she recalls. “But they had been kind of silently following us through media, through our website, through newspapers, and had left us in their will.”

Heyne shares her most recent example, that of a Riceville man named Raphael Rice. Although Rice had never been a member of SAHC or identified himself as a potential donor, he had allocated yearly payments from his trust to the nonprofit of a little less than $4,000. Other folks, longtime small donors, have surprised SAHC with unexpectedly large gifts of up to six figures in their wills.

The United Way has also received many unexpected gifts from wills. Although there is value in an organization knowing what support is coming, Bailey also sometimes appreciates the anonymity of the surprises. “It’s joyful and very meaningful, sort of beyond words, to know that a quiet, sizable gift [was made] with pure intent on the donor’s part,” he says. “Not wanting any recognition, not wanting any special treatment, but they believed in your work. And that’s nice to have from time to time.”

Getting in the Game

Many local organizations have set up special “societies” to recognize those who are designating planned gifts. SAHC’s is simply called the Legacy Society and consists of roughly 80 members, according to Heyne. Other nonprofits have named their societies after notable figures in their organizational history. YWCA of Asheville, for example, names its society for E. Thelma Caldwell, who piloted the organization through the stormy desegregation and merger of the organization’s white and black branches in the 1960s and 70s.

Stephanie Tullos, YWCA’s development coordinator, says her nonprofit’s organized approach to soliciting planned gifts is fairly recent, having formalized the program only in 2015. The society currently has  21 members, who are given complimentary tickets to an annual YWCA event and have their names posted in recognition. “We’re pleased with that,” she says, “but certainly it’s the sort of thing we’re wanting to put more intention and attention to.”

Although United Way hasn’t yet developed as organized an approach to planned giving as other nonprofits, Bailey recognizes it as an important frontier in giving. However, he admits the difficulty of devoting resources and time for additional work to promote planned giving. “Because we’re so nose-to-the-grindstone about our annual campaign every year and making our budgets … we’re not good at communicating the need for [planned gifts] to our donors,” he says. Nonetheless, the organization has been the beneficiary of approximately 30-50 planned gifts in its 98-year history, with a similar number of declared future gifts.

The efforts of these local nonprofits to foster planned giving may be part of a larger trend, as Tullos discovered at a recent international fundraising professional conference. She learned that many of her peers want to focus on these gifts but that many smaller nonprofits have trouble selling the idea to their boards due to the lack of short-term return.

Heinitsh adds that while staff at large nonprofits have often worked with donors on planned gifts, smaller organizations are now also starting to realize the importance of planned gifts to a comprehensive fundraising program. Small nonprofits are particularly starting to push “easy things” such as bequests and naming nonprofits as beneficiaries on retirement accounts and life insurance. “It’s easy for donors,” she notes, “to see how they can do something to support an organization that doesn’t impact their lifestyle today.”

Lasting legacy

While bequests and planned gifts often come to nonprofits from wealthier supporters, Aikman emphasizes that planned giving is not reserved for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. “From where I sit, every gift is important,” she says. “There’s no gift more important than an ultimate gift that someone has A, planned for, and B, that represents … their final act of philanthropy during their lifetime.”

Heinitsh agrees wholeheartedly that planned giving isn’t just for the extremely wealthy. She thinks that virtually everyone who would have a will that distributes assets is capable of making a bequest. In her work, she has seen planned gifts ranging from just $1,000 to millions of dollars.

When talking about planned giving, Aikman likes to remind people where their resources are located. “For many of us, our retirement plan actually represents the majority of our wealth over time, and retirement plans are conveyed by beneficiary designation,” she says. “The money that you have in a retirement plan doesn’t go into your will and then get distributed out again: It goes to the person or the charitable organization that you’ve filled out on a form when you signed up.”

When designating beneficiaries, she notes, a person can assign a percentage or a contingent beneficiary status to a charitable organization. Aikman says that when a person setting up or updating a retirement account fills out a form designating a charity as a beneficiary, that action is essentially a planned gift.

Although older folks often take the initiative to set up planned gifts, Aikman says anyone can think ahead with their resources. That includes someone who’s just getting a first job and filling out their first set of paperwork to prepare for retirement.

“[They] can make a statement about what’s important to them and be mindful … maybe it’s their school, or maybe it’s an organization that helped them when they were growing up,” Aikman suggests. That designation can always be updated and changed as life changes, so it isn’t a permanent commitment — but it is a plan.

Whatever the size of the gift and whether it is expected or unexpected, this kind of giving can be transformative for a nonprofit, says Heyne. “It’s such a truly wonderful way to leave a legacy for an organization that you’re really passionate about, because you’re thinking about that organization past your life on this planet.”


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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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