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Want An Endowment? Plan For it—Ask For It

Resource Center - Foundation

Helen Monroe is the head of Endowment Development Institute,, and has converted her 35 years of experience building endowments into on-line lessons for all organizations.

An Old Story 

helen monroe

You know the story. Joe, a long time donor to your organization—faithful attendee at events, maybe even a great committee or board member—passes away. You read in the paper that he left a big endowment gift to another organization…and nothing to you.

You are tempted to wonder why not to your organization? In a blinding flash of the obvious, you understand. You never asked him for an endowment gift. He didn’t know you wanted an endowment.  There was no information for him about how to include your organization in his estate plans. Bummer, huh?

Easy To Get Started

Endowment building is much easier than you think. Regardless of whether you are a large organization with development staff or a small one with only a few staff who share all responsibilities, you are quite able to secure endowment gifts and use a few basic planned giving strategies to get started.

Ask yourself these three key questions:

  1. Do you have donors who have supported you for the last several years?
  2. Is your organization reasonably stable financially?
  3. Are you tracking your donor gifts using a computer program you can analyze [could be as simple as a spreadsheet]?

If you said yes to all three, you have the basics of endowment success.

But, We Don’t Have Super Rich Donors to Make Big Gifts

 Here’s the broad profile of a good candidate for an endowment gift:

  • Demonstrated commitment to your mission through annual gifts over the past several years
  • Supported special campaigns or made an occasional large gift [whatever you define as large]
  • Willing and able to meet with you occasionally
  • Most likely 50 or older
  • Acquainted with your volunteer leadership, personally or by name recognition 

You see the point. These are folks who know your organization, hopefully know you or your staff or volunteers, and have demonstrated multi-year commitment to your cause. Endowment gifts come from people who know you, who like what you do and how you do it. It is rare, maybe unknown, to get an endowment gift from someone you haven’t already had gifts from.

Plan Your Work – Four Easy Steps

Now is the time to build the plan for an endowment effort. The full development of the plan involves multiple considerations but here are a few first steps to get you started. For a more complete endowment building program checklist, click here to download for free.

1.)   Find a working group of three or four current or past board members who are passionate about the idea of your endowment and have a couple of planning meetings. In these meetings you want to decide why you want the endowment. Please don’t say it’s to balance the budget, or fill the huge need. This statement should be a vision for the exciting things you do when your endowment provides another 10 or 25 percent more annual income. Be inspiring, think big, be excited and don’t discuss the details.

2.)   Be sure your full board is in support of an endowment effort. Some may think it will detract from your annual gifts. It won’t. In fact, it is quite likely it will increase your annual gifts. You need at least one board member who is passionate about endowments, but don’t expect it from everybody. One leader will keep the topic on the agenda and demonstrate how to be helpful for those who are timid of asking for money.

3.)   Use your computer to analyze your donors. How long have they given is the most important characteristic. Knowing the size of their gifts and any information you have about their special interests or specific campaigns they have supported helps, too. You want a list of about 15 to 30 prospects to start, so pick them based on these two measures.

4.)   If at all possible find a lead donor(s) who will contribute the first $5,000 or $25,000 to kick off the effort. An even better option is someone who will agree to match current gifts as that will build immediate funds. Your biggest endowment gifts will come from bequests [gifts after death], so much of your work will be to secure inclusion in your donors’ estate plans.

Work Your Plan – Five Steps to Success

Once these basics are in place, you’re ready to go. With your first gifts you’ll need a committee to work on some policies, procedures and investment options. There is no need to worry about these elements until you have some gifts. A good “philosophy statement” of why the endowment is important gets you started and the rest comes with growth.

OK, so now you know the basics of what to do and you’re ready to think about how you do it. Just remember, people can’t help you if they don’t know what you want. So begin to mention your endowment dreams in all your written communications. Keep in mind that what works best are stories about what you will do when your endowment is $1 million or $100 million. Don’t discuss procedures and processes. Talk about your dreams and ideas.

Unlike most fund raising activities, endowment gifts come from building strong donor relationships. You do this in a variety of ways already. You send newsletters, email messages, have gatherings and larger events and an annual campaign contact. These are all good and should continue but success for endowments comes from a more personal relationship. That’s why it is important that your prospect list be based on how long your donor has supported you. 

Don’t panic.  Here are five steps to engage your prospects in the endowment decision:

  1. Meet with your first donor prospect. If a board member can accompany you it may lend clout and credibility to the topic. The message from the board member is, ”this is an important topic, the board is behind it, think of all the great things that will happen with a large endowment.” All you want to do is communicate that an endowment effort is launched, and your excitement about it.
  2. Second meeting with your donor prospect. Discuss idea of “founders” who make first gifts, or the possibility of a challenge pool. Ask for ideas of who the prospect knows that might be interested in building that pool. Follow up with a chat about other visits and their outcome if specific names were suggested.
  3. Third meeting to make the specific ask. Based on your plan you may seek a current gift or suggest inclusion in a will or other estate plan instrument. You don’t need to get into details of planned gifts other than a will. Your donor’s professional advisors can handle that when the donor tells them to include your organization.
  4. Host a small gathering of your first cash donors. Even if you have only three or four, offer a morning coffee together, or an after-hours wine maybe at someone’s home. Donors like to meet others who share their commitments and learn of your plans and hear stories about what endowments do.
  5. Publicize wherever possible the commitment of your endowment donors. If they don’t want to be publicly named, tell their reasons for their decision to support the endowment. If they agree to be named, be sure you have a picture of them to include in the publicity. Most people like a bit of recognition, and this is your chance to demonstrate how wonderful these gifts are.

Not all prospects will take three visits, but patience is essential. Visits may take three to six months to complete. And if you get a “no interest” signal, say thanks and move on to another name on your list.

Success Comes From Asking 

Now you know why that the endowment process is simple. And you understand that we’re not talking about long lists of names or just the wealthy folks. You already have all the things you need – faithful donors, a simple plan, board commitment and an exciting story about your mission and its future.

Remember Joe. And think of what might have been…if you had only talked with him.  

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