Connecting with your most loyal and senior donors

“Father Time is not always a hard parent, and, though he tarries for none of his children, often lays his hand lightly upon those who have used him well; making them old men and women inexorably enough, but leaving their hearts and spirits young and in full vigour. With such people the grey head is but the impression of the old fellow’s hand in giving them his blessing, and every wrinkle but a notch in the quiet calendar of a well-spent life.”
Charles Dickens

Connecting with our most loyal and senior supporters can be the most inspirational thing we do in our career as a fundraisers. It is such a privilege to meet and learn from people whose bodies are aging, but who, as Charles Dickens says, have hearts and spirits that are young and full of vigour.

Today I am going to share with you a little bit about what we are doing in my organization to develop a robust Planned Giving program. There are many aspects to our recent success, none of which are more important than the age old principle of connecting people in a meaningful way to our mission.

As someone who works in the charitable sector, you know the value of building strong relationships. Ever since1992, when Ken Burnett’s book Relationship Fundraising revolutionized the way we think about and connect with our supporters, we started to see our donors as individuals and not as an unlimited source of revenue. In a Planned Giving program, frail bodies, immobility, isolation and a feeling of not wanting to be a “burden” can prevent those donors who love your organization the most from participating in your offerings.

Engaging this group of donors has NEVER been more important because, according to the BMO Retirement Institute report in July 2009, the biggest wealth transfer in history is about to take place. In Canada, it has been estimated that Boomers stand to inherit $ 1 trillion (that is NOT a typo – one TRILLION) over the next 20 years.

Recently, engaging all donors has become even more complicated. A new Blackbaud report entitled Growing Philanthropy in the United States, released by Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang from Indiana University, is calling on us all to take the idea of building strong relationships with our donors even further. Now in 2012, the report is asking us to stop seeing our supporters as “donors” but as individuals with their own philanthropic needs and aspirations. This is a subtle shift but one that our supporters are demanding as they ask for more meaningful involvement in our charity’s mission.

According to Sargeant and Shang (as well as the 35 non-profit professionals who participated in the thinking behind this report), we need to stop measuring our success by whether or not we meet the needs of our annual budgets, but on the long-term results of the life time value of our relationships with our donors. Think about that for a moment…how will you anticipate the impact one donor can have on your charity over the course of their entire life? How will you keep people involved with your organization not just for year, but for decades?

This shift will not be an easy one. Starting from the board of directors straight through to the volunteer who helps in the office once a week, we will need to think differently about what success looks like. Further, in order to be effective this shift needs to occur across all channels. We can’t measure the results of our direct mail program in isolation from our planned giving program.

I understand the importance of this approach AND I have absolutely no idea how to really apply it. The classic question of how to eat an elephant comes to mind. Well, there is only one way to eat an elephant – one bite at a time. The bite that I choose to chew first is the channel that has the MOST potential for long term organizational transformation – Legacy Giving.

In the past two years I’ve put more effort into making contact with our Legacy prospects and they have told me the following:

 “I don’t go to parties and events because it is too difficult for me to hear what is going on.”

“I’d love to go on that walk, but I’m not sure I can keep up.”

“Since I moved into this nursing home I just don’t have the energy I used to have.”

“I stopped driving last year and don’t go out much anymore.”

“My husband has Alzheimer’s and I can’t leave him alone.”

I work in an environmental organization called Ontario Nature. A core part of our mission is to connect people with nature so that they can experience the wonder, beauty and peace our natural world has to offer. Long walks along a trail, vigorous tree planting events and even cocktail parties were difficult for our legacy donors to participate in. Traditional stewardship activities weren’t working for these donors and yet all of these individuals have included our organization in their estate plans. Connecting with them in a meaningful way is extremely important.

So we started engaging this group in a way that would make it easier for them to participate. We did this in two ways:

Involve Legacy Prospects in honouring those who have passed on

At Ontario Nature we started a Legacy Grove. For every bequest we receive we add to this grove by planting a tree on our Cawthra Mulock Nature reserve. This isn’t a new idea. Our twist is that we invited a group of naturalists – many of whom where well over 70 years old to help us with this task.

Those of you who have ever planted a tree know that it is very hard work physically. To help our senior donors overcome this barrier we invited a local wealth management company to close their office for the afternoon and help us. Together we hauled trees, dug holes in rocky hard soil and helped our seniors experience the satisfaction of getting outside and getting their hands dirty again.

We had a moment of silence and read the names of those who had passed on. The day was full of laughter, sweat, camaraderie and even a few tears and it only lasted two hours. That afternoon our legacy prospects experienced the love and respect that we show legacy donors who have passed on.

Create accessible events

Many of our donors came to us through a love of the natural world. Getting outside was extremely important to them in their younger years. Sadly, many told me they just can’t manage these outings anymore. So in May we worked with a very active 84 year old woman named Phoebe. Phoebe is full of energy and still leads nature walks with her own naturalist club. Phoebe agreed to plan a “hike” that would be accessible to seniors.

The invitation came from Phoebe and we included her photo over her signature. In the invitation we acknowledged that while life has slowed down, a love of nature and desire to get outside were still part of our member’s core values. We also respectfully shared important information, reassuring our members that the walk would be manageable for them. We included information like:

  • The walk would be easy
  • We had one companion for every guest and everyone would have an arm to hold onto if they needed it
  • We were happy to provide a ride for those who couldn’t get there on their own
  • Toilets would be available (done on the phone when they rsvp’d)
  • Reassurance that this event was one that all would be welcome to attend regardless of mobility issues and other barriers.

The day was an overwhelming success. We even had the adventure of having to cross over a tree that had fallen on the trail! We ended the day with a simple picnic of soft foods like egg salad sandwiches and date squares made by yours truly and we all shared the warmth that only sunshine and good company can offer.

These are only two small ways that we have connected our Legacy prospects to our mission and as I write this it now it occurs to me that one ingredient that is fundamentally important to connecting with our most loyal donors is the gift of dignity. We honestly acknowledged some of the challenges that come with age and we found ways of removing those barriers and treating our elders with the dignity and respect that they have earned during their many decades involved with our organization.

In the past year, our organization has transformed its planned giving program and while we have yet to see the financial results, the individual relationships and the number of confirmed pledged bequests that we have earned has been deeply satisfying and an excellent investment in the long term health of Ontario Nature.

Remember, the hearts and spirits of your most loyal and senior donors are young and full of vigour. What kind of activities can you create that keep them connected to your mission?

I’ll be sharing more about our Legacy program at the AFP Toronto Chapter Congress in my session on Tuesday November 20th. Please join me there if you would like to know some of the other things we have done to build healthy and strong relationships with our senior donors.

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