Monday, June 27, 2011


This week’s mail included three direct mail appeals and three invitations to buy term life insurance. Do AAA, AARP, and TIAA-CREF know something about me that I don’t know? Or is June just a good time for this kind of sales to people in their early 50s?

I had already realized that I need life insurance before those offers arrived, so I actually opened these and read them. The plans are similar and the costs are roughly comparable, but interestingly, TIAA-CREF includes a “no cost” option to designate an educational or research institution as an additional beneficiary. That is, without paying extra for it, as long as I buy life insurance from them, I could make a charitable gift after my death to my alma mater, or my husband’s current employer, or some other qualified organization.

Kevin and I are already part of the 8 to 10 percent of adults that include a charitable bequest in our wills. The life insurance offers reminded me that it is long past time for us to review our estate plans. This got me to thinking about what charity or charities we might designate now and for how much.

We give regularly to six charities, plus to other opportunities that come up during the year. I’m not sure I want to make a bequest to each of those six. For a charity that I do want to benefit after my certain and eventual death, it would be good to “endow” our annual gift. A specific bequest equal to 20 times our annual gift, if invested, would allow the charity to withdraw 5 percent a year for at least 20 years, and longer if investment returns are high enough.

But how to decide the organization(s) to put in our will? Our alma mater is an easy choice: It is nearly 100 years old and will be around for decades and perhaps centuries longer. But we don’t make an annual gift there. However, Kevin’s professional library might be something a liberal arts college would be able to use. That, however, is probably a question we should ask before we put that in writing. There is no point in creating a gift that would be a burden. I mean, do YOU want to sort through 7,000+ history books to figure out which are of value to faculty or students these days, with iPads and e-books, etc.?

We support some local organizations that serve missions we care about, but the organizations themselves might not last forever. We could make a gift to the Central Indiana Community Foundation, but would a low four-figure endowment be large enough for them to bother with? And should I reward poor stewardship with a bequest gift (see Pay Day = Give Day)?

I want to arrange charitable bequests, but this will require more thought and discussion with Kevin and our kids. This is definitely not a gift to make on a whim, unlike Saturday’s $1 cash-register donation at our pharmacy to help find a cure for ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease

* According to Wikipedia, Will-o-the-Wisp is 'the folklore term for a ghostly light sometimes seen at night or twilight over bogs, swamps, and marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is sometimes said to recede if approached.'

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pet peeves in appeals

Daughters Elle and Lia and I returned Saturday from a trip to see my dad. When we got home, sitting in the stack of mail were three credit card offers, four attempts to get me to subscribe to magazines, and two requests for funds from nonprofit organizations.

One of those is a renewal request from an organization we last gave to three or four years ago; the second is the third or fourth acquisition appeal from the same organization since I started tracking in May. I’m not giving to that one – again. I don’t take myself off of lists but if you want to cut down on wasting paper, you could request that you be removed from direct mail lists. Warning, though: It isn't easy or sure-fire.

The renewal request intrigued me. They are doing the right thing to invest in retaining prior donors. That is the most cost-effective way to raise funds, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, among others.

The request itself looks like an invitation. This organization is using many tried and true approaches to get readers to open the envelope and then to boost response rate: a stamp on the envelope; “handwriting” font used – in blue – for the address; “handwriting” font crossing out “Dear Friend” and “writing” our names to make it look more personal; plus adding a “handwritten” post-script and signature.

Inside is a very well done appeal letter. The letter is brief and fits inside the two panels of a 6” x 8.5” card. It contains:
a) An emotional “word picture” to break the silence – suffering people caught in manmade or natural disasters.
b) Five examples of results or impact this organization claims for last year’s work.
c) A transition, asking us to fix our gaze on this year, listing countries where disasters and their aftermath continue.
d) A request for our help.
e) A closing paragraph with the organization’s tag line included seamlessly in the text.
f) The aforementioned P.S. in “handwriting” with a specific dollar amount mentioned.
g) A postage-paid return envelope, eliminating the need for me to find a stamp along with five minutes and a pen.

The little form is printed with our names and address, and it gives us options for amounts to contribute. The organization accepts four different credit cards and on the back, all of the required registrations by state are listed. A website is provided, but I’m not invited to go there to make a gift. Maybe I’m supposed to know that I can do that, if I prefer?

And then the clincher for me. I admit that this is a pet peeve. The response slip DOES NOT FIT easily in the return envelope. Maybe response goes up when people have to fold the slip to fit in the envelope, but to me it looks like bad planning.

We are not giving to this organization right now. I won’t even keep the appeal to consider later, since I’m 100% certain they’ll send several more in weeks and months to come. Maybe the envelope and reply device will go together next time.

What is YOUR pet peeve in fundraising appeals?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A "Roamin' Holiday"

Twins Ann and Elle and I travelled to the Bonnaroo festival, and while they camped, I spent time in and around Winchester, TN. This community of about 7,000 residents boasts two famous native offspring: Sir John Templeton (1912-2008), financier and philanthropist, and Dinah Shore (1916-1994), entertainer and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Other than their namesake streets, it is difficult to see any lasting imprint of these wealthy individuals on their hometown.* Winchester, like many rural communities, appears little-touched by outside philanthropy.

Dinah Shore’s philanthropy is not well-publicized, but other people, often those affiliated with the LPGA, have honored her. These initiatives include naming charity golf events after her and awarding scholarships with her name.

According to Wikipedia, Templeton funded a library in nearby Sewanee, TN and left an estimated $1 billion in several philanthropic programs. One of those institutions, the John Templeton Foundation, supports research into a number of “Big Ideas.” Grants made a few years ago, for example, support research about the origins, manifestations, and consequences of philanthropy, as part of an exploration of character development.

Results from those studies are still under review. But even before that work is done, there are insights into the origins of charitable giving. In an award-winning study, Eleanor Brown (no relation) of Pomona College and James Ferris of the University of Southern California showed the importance of social networks as a determinant (cause) of volunteering and giving. Basically, the more groups—formal or informal—a person belongs to, the more likely he or she is to give or volunteer. There isn’t a 100% correlation, but using data about thousands of people, this is the trend. So why do people give or volunteer when they know more people?

Because it feels good. Scholars say there really is no giving without SOME kind of return. At a minimum, donors get a “warm glow”. Which might be a “warm glow” for helping a friend meet a fundraising goal for a walkathon, even if the cause itself is not so important to you. It might also be the pretty cool “rush” you can get knowing that your money has been able to transform someone else’s life in a substantial way.

One of my brothers, for example, supports a program called Summer Search, which has some pretty impressive stats about its impact for the high school students the group selects and mentors. So, I while I didn’t leave any money behind for charity in Winchester, I’m learning about Summer Search and proposing it for our family's line-up of regular monthly donations. That gets me a double “warm glow” : helping my brother with one of his strong interests and funding, in a small way, transformative experiences for kids the age of my kids. Stay tuned….

* Despite some people’s preferences to have buildings named after them, most philanthropy leaves little physical trace. Templeton or Shore could have left a trust, scholarship fund, or other philanthropic contribution in a way that was not visible as I walked and drove through the community.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Payday = Give Day

My family gives every month to four charities. Each gift is relatively small, but over the course of a year, we give more than 1 percent of our income. One gift is charged automatically to a credit card; three are paid by our bank after I set them up as recurring “bill payments.” Interestingly, only one charity regularly sends a gift acknowledgement.

Gleaners Food Bank sends a letter and an envelope for another gift each month. Thank you!

Doctors Without Borders sends “updates,” which include appeals for more gifts. They also sell or trade their mailing list to numerous other groups, which is a common practice.

Indiana Youth Group (IYG) sent a sort-of thank you at the end of 2010, which was really an appeal for more money. This is the first time we’ve heard from them since starting our contributions in fall 2009. Not even a newsletter in more than a year.

The executive director of Ensemble Music Society contacted us after our first gift, also in fall 2009, to ask for the full amount of our “pledge” to the capital campaign. Since the gift is unrestricted with no end date, I couldn’t answer his question.

So, you might ask, WHY do we keep giving to these groups. Mostly it gets down to mission and how these groups work toward goals that we hold as individuals. While research says giving is irrational, I see our donations as “votes” for our values.

As I’ve said before, we are committed to trying to assure better food security, so the Gleaners gift is a no-brainer for us. The gifts to Doctors without Borders reflect daughter Ann’s interests. Plus I like all of the address labels, gift wrap and note cards from the other groups that buy or rent that list! IYG ties to the other daughters’ volunteer work, first Elle and now Lia, with the high school Gay Straight Alliance. The Ensemble Music Society reflects my husband’s strong interest in high culture, even though he no longer attends their concerts.

Our secular giving is about average. American donor households give one percent of their income to secular causes. Households that participate in worship services give two percent of their income to religion, on average.

I’d love to double our giving to secular causes so that we could give 2 or even 3 percent of our income in total, going even further than the Foundation Beyond Belief. We’d probably add more charities, rather than increase the gifts we make now. The stack of requests just keeps growing – four more last week by mail.

Just writing this makes me realize that it is time we re-evaluate the organizations we give to. We set up those automatic payments more than 18 months ago. If we are “voting” for our values, we need to check in with each other about what might have changed since then. My husband will probably have the same choices, but the teens' preferences have likely shifted, and our giving should reflect those.

P.S. In addition to the automatic withdrawals, last week we wrote checks to Relay for Life for the June 4 event. This week, I’ll make our contributions by credit card in memory of Bob Payton, $88 to Center on Philanthropy Scholarship Fund and $22 to Payton Library, following the votes on the poll. Thanks!