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Building a Successful Planned Giving Program: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Three uncanny parallels between good barbecue and gift planning,

by Andy Ragone









We need money now. We don't have time to do planned giving.

- the collective response from many interviewed organizations

For organizations highly dependent upon donation revenue, we may tend to place our efforts at planned giving on the back burner and regard them as secondary. Yes, a materialized bequest can be transformative, allowing any organization to leap into a new phase of initiatives that would otherwise be impossible. For most organizations, these surprise gifts, while appreciated, are not strategically sought after.

After holding thousands of conversations with development officers and executive directors alike for the past six years, I have seen a pattern emerge with a sentiment towards the value of planned giving--a sentiment that has done more harm to many of these organizations than good.

When asked about the direction of their gift planning programs, organizations have given me these responses:

  • We do not have the bandwidth or resources available to build this program. We're a small but mighty shop, and our key events take absolute priority to bring money in the door.

  • We feel uncomfortable discussing ways of giving that go outside of what we know.

  • We are still determining what to focus on when building our program. Where do we start when so many areas within planned giving need our attention?

  • Our board of directors is unfamiliar with gift planning. Consequently, it is less than enthusiastic about it, so we must focus on what it would like to see happen.

  • We had no idea how involved developing a program would be until we started building it.

Do any of these ring a bell?

There may be other reasons than these, but I have heard one of the above sentiments in nearly every meeting. By the way, if you are starting to build your gift planning program, consider taking a look at the National Standards for Gift Planning Success by the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners. This is a good place to start, and there are many great resources available.


You had me at "barbecue!"


Let us now focus on setting some planned giving expectations for the remainder of this blog. If you have been in the gift planning space for awhile, then you understand how the greatest gifts are often complex and/or estate gifts. Seeing these gifts through to

fruition often takes multiple steps and a lot of care.


Are we willing to give the care needed to see these gifts materialize? Our readiness depends on a lot of things, including buy-in from leadership, a capacity to move donors through the process, capable marketing, and critical professional advisor relationships. Gift planning programs seldom grow without addressing each of these key areas.


While only a metaphor, I hope you will find this blog as a way to paint a satisfying and multi-sensorial picture for your leadership and board of directors. So what is the uncanny relationship between BBQ and planned giving? Consider these three facets:


Low and Slow


In the barbecue universe, "Low and Slow" signifies a time-honored technique of slow-cooking meat at a low temperature over an extended period. This method slowly distributes heat to transform ordinary cuts of meat into mouthwatering masterpieces, tenderizing them while infusing them with rich, smoky flavors. Similarly, in planned giving, "Low and Slow" represents a patient and strategic approach to cultivating long-term relationships with donors, often resulting in substantial contributions through bequests and complex gifts. Just as slow-cooked barbecue requires precision and dedication, so does planned giving necessitate unwavering commitment and a steady hand.


This approach is counterintuitive for organizations aiming to pull in immediate gifts from thousands of donors. Who can give the time needed to steward a donor for an uncertain future gift? While an unfair way to frame the question–as there are several ways to secure an irrevocable gift–it can be the attitude of many organizational executives.


What if one donor in a single estate gift could bring in the equivalent of the total amount raised in five galas at a tiny fraction of the cost? With appropriate relational stewardship, exploration, and a compelling challenge, donors step up daily to make these transformational gifts. Should an organization prioritize these types of donors for these types of gifts? Just imagine the outcome.


Planned giving requires a "low and slow" approach, where donors warm up to the idea of challenge and become the heroes of moving organizations forward.


Temperature Control:


My son got married at the beginning of September. He and I thought it would be fun to smoke some brisket and tri-tip for the rehearsal dinner. I had smoked a brisket only once, and it turned out alright. "What could go wrong?" I thought to myself. "My pleasure, son!" was my response.


In preparation, my wife and I decided to try another one out, invite some neighbors, and give it a test run. Either they lied because we fed them... or, they liked it. When the rehearsal dinner day came, I headed out to the smoker before dawn with a tiny LED light strapped to my headband. Yes, I'm a nerd. I had trimmed the brisket and put a dry rub on the evening before so as to sleep in a little longer. I warmed up the smoker, went to the fridge, and got it on the grates. So far, so good.


As the sun moved overhead, I periodically monitored the smoker's temperature and pellet reservoir to ensure things were operating smoothly. I then walked away and preoccupied myself elsewhere. I knew something was amiss when I sat at my desk on the other side of the house and saw billows of smoke wafting just outside my window. "That's not good." I thought. I then raced to the backyard to see that the smoker was on fire. The whole smoker... engulfed in flames.


Temperature control is crucial in barbecue. Maintaining a consistent and low temperature, and not an onslaught of direct heat, is essential for the desired tenderness and flavor. Pitmasters carefully monitor and adjust the heat to ensure the meat cooks evenly. Of course, I am no pitmaster, as evidenced by the inferno happening in front of me. It was not long before neighbors knocked on my door to see if everything was alright.


Like any concerned BBQ enthusiast, my priority was not seeing to the well-being of my family or thinking that it would matter that the smoker was still plugged in. It does. But my concern? "The meat! What about the meat?" So I frantically found my oven gloves, two meat forks, and a plate to rescue the brisket from its flaming fate. Once I had successfully transferred the brisket to the oven, I could tend to the volcano erupting in my backyard.


While the meat turned out okay, it was just okay. The "flat" portion turned out to be dryer than what I wanted, which was brought upon by the rapid change in temperature.


Similarly, maintaining a suitable "temperature" in our relationships with donors is vital in planned giving. This means routinely staying in touch, keeping the donor positively engaged, and ensuring they feel valued and respected. Just as temperature fluctuations can ruin BBQ, a lack of relationship maintenance can result in lost opportunities for planned gifts.


Let it cook! Patiently wait for the relationship and interest to percolate.


Achieving the perfect BBQ requires patience, which means a determined refusal to assess how well the meat is cooking. Pitmasters understand that rushing the cooking process can result in subpar results. They will wait hours or even overnight to achieve that mouthwatering barbecue flavor.


Perhaps the greatest mistake of many BBQ newbies is the need to see it cooked and turn up the heat to compensate for what seems to be an interminably long time. We may not realize that the more we spy on our progress, the more likely we are to sabotage the quality of the outcome.


In planned giving, patience is also vital. As fundraisers, we ask our donors to go out of their way to fashion the most significant gift they will ever give. It can take years for donors to decide to include a charitable organization in their estate plans. Fundraisers must patiently wait for the right moment when donors demonstrate interest and are

ready to make a planned gift. The more patient we are in this process, the greater the gift. We are still guiding every step of the way. It also means we are not rushing our donors to move at a pace faster than they wish to make.


Whether in the savory world of barbecue or the noble pursuit of philanthropy, the "Low and Slow" approach teaches us invaluable lessons. Temperature control in the smoker and donor relationships is vital for achieving the desired outcome. Just as pitmasters carefully tend to their fires to ensure even cooking, those in the world of planned giving must diligently maintain relationships with donors, keeping them engaged, valued, and respected.

Perhaps the most profound lesson of all is the art of patience. We cannot perfect our barbecue if we rush the process; it requires hours or overnight waits. Only through patient monitoring can we perfect our craft. Likewise, planned giving often involves patiently waiting for donors to make significant contributions, sometimes spanning years. In both domains, the reward for patience is unparalleled – succulent, melt-in-your-mouth barbecue and the potential to make a lasting impact on a cause dear to one's heart.



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