People often ask me about my life. What’s my background? Where’s my accent from? Where did I grow up? Where did you meet your wife? One of these days I’ll get around to answering all that…
But the most common question I get is, “Viken, how did you get into planned giving?”
I think most of us got into this business by accident — and that’s what happened to me.
I did not wake up one morning, smack my forehead, and say,
“Hey man, I’m going into planned giving. It’s the wave of the future for CRUTs and CRATs."
Before starting this business, I owned a small boutique marketing agency. We were originally focused on corporate deliverables, and my clients included Philadelphia Electric (now Exelon/PECO), Pizzeria Uno, Hooters (yes, that one; photo shoots were interesting), and University of Pennsylvania Annual Giving (now the Penn Fund). They did not have much in common. But overall, I had mostly corporate clients with a few nonprofits. An eclectic mix.
Riches in Niches
Well, I began getting more and more nonprofits in my portfolio, so I gradually focused on development. It just made sense. It’s pretty common in business to focus on your most profitable sector, otherwise you’ll be a generalist, just like annual giving folks. This is digressing, but related: In the 1940s there was a kid in Boston (William Rosenberg) who owned some 250 food trucks delivering sandwiches, coffee, pretzels, candy, cigarettes, doughnuts… over 150 edibles to shipyard workers, businesses, offices, so forth. Quite a chaotic business.
He discovered that almost half of his sales were from only two items: coffee and donuts. The rest is history; he founded Dunkin’ Donuts — a niche market like planned giving. Simply genius.
Back to the point: My portfolio grew to include more and more nonprofits. NYU, Haverford, Swarthmore, Harvard, St. Joes, Villanova (worked with John Elizandro, tough guy, now retired and a good friend of mine in Palm Beach), and of course Penn Development. I just liked working with schools.
Aha! Planned Giving at Penn.
At my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania (“Penn”, not to be confused with Penn State), I met Deborah Blackmore and John Foster (one of the original creators of The Ultimate Quick Reference Planned Giving Pocket Guide) in the planned giving department. That was the early beginnings. We first developed the now popular Gift Comparison Chart (paper version; now electronic), which to me back then looked like rocket science. I think this was back in 1988 and now every vendor and nonprofit is using it.
Deborah left her position to go to Wellesley and John Foster became the Director of Planned Giving. I was very close to Deborah and my heart broke when she passed away from cancer. (By the way, a few years after John left, I met Brian Sagrestano at Penn. Brilliant Cornell and Notre Dame guy; I hope his health is okay as he’s taken a break from his career.) Penn Planned Giving has come a long way since the above folks planted the seeds and now is called Office of Gift Planning.
The Idea Was Born
One day in 1998 I held a company party and to my surprise John Foster showed up. He was a boring, typical planned giving guy — a good old boy from a bygone era. (I hope he’s not reading this.) So, having absolutely nothing in common except some personal blunders, we became friends.
“So, John, I’ve been reading your materials on planned giving for about 5 years and I still do not ‘get’ planned giving.” John, an English major with a JD from Villanova, was kind of taken aback. Or should I say pissed off at that comment? Jeez, I was just being me, simply honest.
A Few Martinis
So we talked about it for what seemed an eternity that evening. The night got deeper and deeper, and after three martinis, the idea was born to go into developing planned giving websites and other much-needed online solutions for nonprofits. It seemed brilliant at the time, since newsletters were dying off. But I said, “John, let’s hold off until we are sober in the morning.”
I can no longer drink as much, especially after my cancer, but the next morning the idea sounded even better — which usually is not the case after a lush night.
As I mentioned, back in 1998, planned giving newsletters were already at the end of their run, and today only a handful of dinosaur consultants and nonprofits try to revitalize them a few times a year. (FYI, if you really want to have a successful newsletter, it should be a monthly, well written, with exciting content and special columns. I have yet to see someone succeed at producing one like this, not to mention doing it monthly.)
At that time, it was the early internet age. So we decided to delve into a specialty: the planned giving website. The websites, along with direct mail postcards, were an alternative to the Mesozoic newsletters. It was a hard sell, and many old-timers (aka dinosaurs, whom I still remember) looked down on us and said for sure we would fail. And if we did fail, so what? Failing never bothered me because “a failure is an inevitable cul-de-sac on the road to success.” (Tell to Win, Peter Guber; good book to read).
Anyhow, most of those dinosaurs are now extinct, and those that aren’t are envious we succeeded — or scratching their heads trying to figure out why they are now fossils. That same year (1998) was when Adam Corson-Finnerty (far ahead of his time and an early influencer of mine) at University of Pennsylvania wrote Dinosaur Development. We’ve come a long way.
Today I still come across a few moribund folks. Some of the planned giving “experts” are anything but. They peddle prehistoric, clunky solutions simply because “it’s always been done that way.” As the late Grace Hopper said, that’s the most damaging phrase in the language…
Just a few days ago, I received a call from a planned giving consultant from the Midwest who asked me to make a presentation with him. His recommendations for the new small shop? “Begin with a planned giving newsletter and a calculator.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He was giving such moldy, antiquated, obsolete advice. I would not give this advice even to an established shop! Obviously I declined before destroying my reputation. The last thing I want to be recognized as is a dumb dino.
The company we formed in late 1998 was VirtualGiving.Com (Google it, we still come up). John eventually left for personal reasons, but I continued diligently. About 10 years ago I strategically purchased PlannedGiving.Com and PlannedGiving.Org (for a lot of money). That was a big coup and my wife was instrumental in convincing me to buy them (men — listen to your wives). I heard other vendors were quite envious of the purchase, so they began promoting the use of the term Gift Planning instead. (Google prefers “Planned Giving” 101 to 1, by the way).
To rub salt into their wounds, a few years later I negotiated and purchased GiftPlanning.Org (and .net; both for sizable sums again) from a major nonprofit that owned them. I heard the other vendors hit the roof again. We’re proud we own these top level domains (TLDs) and have plans to help our clients and community — keep your eyes on us.
For those who “get it” in marketing (and most do not), owning your name in your brand speaks volumes. (Unless you have a lot of money like Amazon Books or Barnes and Noble, of course. Though B&N owns books.com.) A friend of mine sells golf clubs and he owns golfclubs.com. It’s like owning 1-800-FLOWERS.
We’re Not Planned Giving Experts.
We’re Planned Giving Marketing Experts.
We’ve grown into a research-based planned giving marketing and communications firm and advocate a different approach than the old guard. Our mission is to get your message through to your donors, which helps you bring in the gifts. In short, we focus on front-end activity that helps you grow. Others who focus on back-end activity such as using calculators and attorneys for their marketing simply do not understand this concept:
Attorneys protect and structure gifts — that’s how they're wired. We broadcast the message to bring in those gifts. That’s how we’re wired.
Our latest ventures are:
OK, ‘nuff writing. Have to get back to real work.
PS: After so many years John and I just reconnected. This time at Starbucks.
PPS: I’d like to hear how you got into planned giving and how rewarding it has been for you. Post your comments below or on LinkedIn.