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Makin' a List, Checkin' It Twice

January 2006
By: Ron Haas
I recently went through an interesting process with my mother. She was doing some estate planning and wondered what would be the best way to choose which organizations she should include in her charitable giving. My mother is a faithful believer who is very interested in being a good steward of the resources the Lord has given her.

We began by making a list of all the ministries that she wanted to help. First on her list was her local church, and then several mission agencies followed by some Christian colleges, radio ministries, and social service organizations.

Eighteen different ministries made the list. At first, we thought about just giving them all an equal percentage, but that didn't seem quite right. Because she had more interest in some ministries than others, we decided on a plan to weigh the distribution.

Our list looked like this:
10%Local Church
50%Missions (divided among four agencies)
15%Higher Education (divided among three colleges)
15%Social Service Agencies (divided among three organizations)
10%Radio Ministries (divided among seven broadcasts)

Here are some questions we wrestled with:

Why choose to give smaller gifts to 18 different ministries rather than bless one or two with a larger amount?

John D. Rockefeller compared giving to investing. A wise investor does not put all his eggs in one basket. Instead, he or she spreads the risk over several companies. Unfortunately, some people who owned large stock positions in Enron and WorldCom learned this lesson the hard way. The same principle seems appropriate when making stewardship decisions. Ministries change. Executive directors come and go. Sometimes organizations drift from their founding principles and move away from the mission that first attracted the donor. Some ministries are good stewards of the gifts they receive; some are not. For my mom, diversifying her giving seemed to increase her chances that the money would be used in the best possible way to advance the cause of Christ.

How did she decide which organizations made the list?

My mom's first priority was her local church, which matches her biblical philosophy of tithing. Plus, it's the ministry that has blessed her the most. Other organizations made the list based upon how strong of a relationship she has had with them over the years. Her contact with mission agencies came as a result of missionary presentations in her church. Colleges made the list because they had benefited her children and grandchildren. Radio broadcasts were included because she is now homebound and receives encouragement every day by listening to Christian programming. Social service agencies, including a crisis pregnancy center, were included because of their focus on reaching people's physical and spiritual needs.

How did she decide which organizations didn't make the list?

At one point in our discussion, we had identified 24 ministries. To narrow the list, we decided to concentrate on those with whom she had a closer relationship. We determined that this was not the time to find new ministries; instead she focused on the ones that she already knew and appreciated. I suggested a Christian camp that had impacted my life as a teenager. However, she had lost track of them and didn't know the current director, so the camp didn't make the cut.

Will she ever reconsider her choices?

Absolutely. Her interests may change. Some ministries might be added to the list. Some may be allocated a greater percentage. Gifts to some organizations may be reduced or even eliminated.

What will be the basis for making any adjustments to her giving list?

It's one word—relationships. If an executive director of one these ministries (or even a new ministry) were to cultivate a deeper relationship with my mom by visiting her, sharing stories of how they are impacting lives, and casting a compelling vision of future ministry, she might consider adjusting her giving priorities. However, without any personal contact from these ministries, she's not likely to change her mind.

What's the best way to expand your planned giving efforts?

Start by growing your annual fund. All the ministries that ended up on her planned giving list were ministries with whom my mom had a prior relationship. Strong capital campaigns and strong estate design programs are built on strong annual fund campaigns. Don't approach planned giving as only something that happens in the reading of a will. Many people operate by the stewardship philosophy, "Do your givin' while you're livin'; then you'll be knowin' where it's goin'."

How can our center make "the list"?

Think like major donors. They might not have written down their list the same way that my mom has, but they still have a list in their head. Each one has giving priorities. With that in mind, look first at your database of current donors. These are the people who are most likely to remember you in their estate plans. They already know and love you. At least you hope they know and love you. What if they have lost track of you, and you're no longer on their radar screen? That's why it's so important to know who is in your database. You must cultivate genuine relationships with some key friends on your list in the hope that one day your organization will end up on their list.

Processing these questions with my mother has reinforced to me the value of relationships in fundraising. Your donors are not just anonymous names in a database; they are real people who you should get to know personally. Both you and they will be blessed by a closer relationship.

Ron Haas is a consultant with the Timothy Group and has served as a pastor, a vice-president for institutional advancement, and a grant-making professional for a Christian foundation. He can be reached at

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