Social Media | Major and Planned Giving Applications

This article represents a written version of a verbal presentation given during the Practical Planned Giving Conference hosted by Crescendo Interactive, Inc. in Orlando, Florida on September 18, 2012. The slide deck can be found on ISSUU. A few years later I authored, “Nonprofit Social Media is Essential to Attracting and Retaining Donors” for Qgiv. Follow the link to read it.

“Every once in a while, a person will do something obvious and direct that is no more than it appears to be. I think they do it to throw you off.”

– Steven Brust, American science fiction author (b. 1955)

In this article I will focus on traditional ideas as well as a few new concepts that may go against the grain of established nonprofit development practice.

But first, how did I come to be involved with social media?

I was asked to join Facebook in 2008 by a major gift donor whose family had awarded several of my nonprofit projects more than $1 million. I was reticent, did not think I had time to learn it, and I did not see its value. But, I reconsidered given the stature of that donor and their family to me and my nonprofit projects. I joined Facebook in January, 2009.

I have since discovered major gift donors – individuals, families, foundations and agencies – are active on social media. My personal goal on social media is to educate, inform, and support them all.

During this year’s Practical Planned Giving Conference, we learned:

  • More people of all ages are online.
  • Social media is no longer used primarily by young people.
  • More people 40 and older are online, the number is growing, and this is a target planned giving audience.
  • Your nonprofit organization should have social media metrics in place.
  • Measure online responses to everything and evaluate your data.
  • Alter your communications strategies accordingly.

These discussions make perfect sense.

But what about Peter Shankman of Vocus, a highly successful social media expert with more than 85,000 Facebook followers who consults for the likes of American Express, U.S. Department of Defense, Sprint, and NASA?

“Numbers don’t matter. What’s important is that you understand your audience, know what they want, and give it to them.”

I like the analogy of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the popular movie Star Wars, who said to Luke Skywalker at one critical point during the film, “Use the Force, Luke.” Yes, technology got you into space in the first place, but at some point you must use your brain and trust your instincts.

It is the same situation with social media. Eventually you must let go of your fear and communicate. And I would add, a mature fundraising executive is better able to make decisions about what should be communicated to a nonprofit’s constituency than someone who is simply facile with social media tools.

In truth, the “hub” of your communications empire is your website. If your website is not well-organized and polished all else suffers. Why? Those reading your direct mail, email, and social media communications will inevitably head right back to your website.

I enjoyed the following information from State Farm, a successful insurance corporation. Here they discuss nonprofit planned giving websites, and why some of them do not work well for the average visitor seeking planned giving information. Who would have thought!

But it makes sense they would have an interest in this topic given the focus of their business, and the fact that insurance can be considered a planned gift. State Farm suggests the problem with many planned giving websites is:

  • They are too complicated.
  • They have too many words.
  • They use legalese that most people don’t understand.
  • They don’t easily offer downloadable information or a way to sign-up for a newsletter.
  • They don’t focus on the nonprofit’s mission.
  • They don’t say how their money will be spent.
  • They don’t share bequest language easily.
  • They don’t say who is leading the charge at the nonprofit, and what his or her strategic plan will be going forward.
  • They don’t emphasize the history and longevity of the organization. Will your nonprofit be around long enough to merit a planned gift?

I suggest each of us with a website containing planned giving information have an objective look at it, see how the site compares, and consider making changes as needed. You might consider asking key volunteers and donors to review your site as well and give constructive feedback.

As you probably know, business experts are constantly providing information to companies regarding their websites, to help them improve their communications overall. What are the most important parts of a website when it comes to people getting online and visiting them? From Business News Daily, the key parts of your website are:

  • Logo
  • Main navigation menu
  • Search box
  • Social networking links
  • Main image
  • Written content
  • Bottom of the website.

Of course, nonprofits will also want to focus on an easily-accessible location for the “donate” button as well. Those of us managing websites should pay attention to these simple but critical “visual points,” to ensure that donors and their colleagues can easily find information and navigate to and through them.

I met Kivi Leroux Miller in Austin during a day-long seminar hosted by Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations in spring, 2012. She wrote and continues to provide updated information via, The Nonprofit Marketing Guide.

When it comes to communicating Kivi wisely notes, “there is no such thing as the general public.” Nonprofits have multiple audiences, and each one may require different “messaging.” Kivi provides excellent advice that underscores my discussion:

  • Focus on the basics first – your nonprofit’s website and its e-mail marketing program. E-mail is not “dead” yet and is, in fact, more trusted than social media in many cases.
  • Don’t fret about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and other online venues until you have your website and e-mail program polished and well-in-hand.
  • Don’t fear failure. Yet also, do not be too conservative when it comes to communicating using social media.
  • Remember that people value honesty and transparency.

Kivi suggests we define our audience(s). Who are they? Chances are they may require different kinds of “messaging.” Just when you thought this was going to be easy … you may have these distinct audiences:

  • Donors and potential donors
  • Family members, advisors and friends of donors (gatekeepers)
  • Professional advisors
  • People served by your nonprofit.

Once you have identified these audiences, you need to consider:

  • What are the values and needs of each group?
  • What do they care about?
  • And last but not least, develop communication and marketing tactics and messages that focus on those traits.

Now, coming back to Peter Shankman for a minute. Peter provides excellent advice when he says,

“Keep it real, be transparent and own what you do wrong. There is no better way to get an audience to trust you than to be honest with them when you screw up. Be honest and open, be the person who people think you are.”

Take a deep breath. You have a lot of communicating to do about the merits of making a planned gift to your nonprofit organization. Inevitably some errors will occur, but in social media today that seems to be understandable and acceptable if you deal with the problems directly, thoughtfully, and honestly.

The September, 2012 issue of Fast Company has an entertaining and informative article on social media. I particularly enjoyed this comment:

“Unpleasant truth No. 1: Engagement Can’t Be Seen in Dollars. Until Lady Gaga, Skittles had the record for most likes and comments on a single Facebook post. Did it boost sales? ‘Anybody who says they can track that is in a bubble.’”

– Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Big Spaceship

To some degree, you have to let go of the numbers and keep communicating regardless.

Nonprofit guru and theorist Dan Pallotta, who blogs with the Harvard Business Review, says something important about “data”:

“If Walt Disney waited for the data he would never have built Disneyland. The only way you could get data on Disneyland was to build it. The nonprofit sector kills the spirit of those who work inside it with its glorification of data. The demand for data is just a way of putting off the sickening feeling in your gut that comes from taking a real risk.”

I would counter that while it is still a good idea to review your data – and most social media platforms have fairly easily accessible tracking tools from which you can routinely retrieve data about how many are reading a certain post and the like – the point is you should not become obsessed with it.

Here is a related thought for your consideration. Just because certain “posts” are popular according to your analytics, does that mean you should continue focusing on them? You must be in the driver’s seat. Sometimes the less “clicked on” messages may in fact be the ones you must keep posting, because you know your nonprofit’s needs and top priorities best. You may want to reconsider simply reformatting your messages so they garner the attention they deserve. Popularity cannot be the ultimate arbiter.

Cynthia Wilson Krause of Dallas is a distinguished nonprofit executive I regard highly.  Cynthia produced a insightful “Checklist for Planned Giving Officers” that was featured in The Nonprofit Times a few years ago:

  • Focus on becoming more of an educator and less of a technician.
  • Focus on individuals who are truly motivated by charitable intent, not just tax considerations.
  • Strengthen donor-recognition programs to keep current donors.
  • Utilize market strategies that incorporate your mission (which I believe would include social media).
  • Strengthen your focus on philanthropy and caring about future generations.
  • Create a strategy or process for educating your board and senior leadership about the benefits of planned giving.
  • Determine what type of planned giving program best suits your organization and adjust your strategic plan accordingly.

Now, what social media platforms should your nonprofit use? Consider:

  • What venues are you comfortable using?
  • Which venues are appropriate for your nonprofit organization’s mission, image, and style of communicating?
  • Are there venues you aren’t using now, that you should learn?


  • Constantly evaluate which social media venues might be valuable to your communications strategies  – new ones are developed fairly often (keep up with trends).
  • Realize that the most popular venues may not be a good fit. Don’t jump into new social media venues without thinking them through to determine how they might support your communications.

Once you choose your platforms:

  • Interweave your posts across platforms to provide variety and to strengthen your case for support.
  • Curate content – think information through before posting, and routinely clean-up outdated information.
  • Respond to donor and prospect inquiries ASAP and show you’re paying attention.

How do I use social media? Although I am speaking from the point of view of an individual with an independent company – and that is different from a nonprofit organization – I will mention briefly how I work.

I consider my work in social media to be like a well-rehearsed dance. My social media dance partners include WordPress (my blog is “home base”); Facebook (both personal and professional pages); Instagram; Twitter; Tumblr (for visual blogging); LinkedIn (professional); Pinterest; and YouTube.

With the primary venues noted above, I constantly cross-post or “weave” information through and between each of them. I do not create a great deal of new content; rather, I refashion similar information to fit the style of each social media platform. I try not to be dull and I strive to be genuinely interesting and helpful.

Here are a few ideas for you and your nonprofit to consider. You might have:

  • More than one Twitter account (i.e., one for general information about your nonprofit’s mission and ongoing work; another for special events; and another for professional advisors).
  • More than one Facebook page (a formal presence for your nonprofit and its mission and activities, another for legacy donors and their special activities).
  • And you might consider creating video, and post them across channels. Don’t forget, the next most frequently used search engine after Google is YouTube.

You might also …

  • Develop an attractive blog with regular posts by the director and program staff about your nonprofit’s accomplishments (cross-link them).
  • Include guest blog posts by trusted professional advisors (cross-link them).
  • As appropriate, recognize donors online (but get permission first).

While I believe it is a terrific idea to constantly feature you or your planned giving officer, I would tend to vary blog authorship to make the content interesting to your audience(s), and to ensure that you are training your website visitors to focus on the nonprofit and its mission, not just an individual personality.

What this discussion indicates is that nonprofits do need a e-communications strategy. The best results require thought and planning. The issues I have presented here should be considered part of your strategy. Admittedly, it will take time to develop such a plan, but if you jump into the middle of social media without it, you run the risk of having to untangle your communications program later on, and wasting a great deal of time.

As alluded to earlier, mature fundraising executives are more experienced and hence well-suited to fully understand the importance of a well-planned communications strategy, to dovetail it with ongoing fundraising campaigns, and to understand their nonprofit’s unique audience(s). To my mind, this kind of activity is a perfect fit for major gift and planned giving officers.

But here is yet another perspective you might enjoy from cartoonist Rob Cottingham:

“So we poured our budget into a Foursquare strategy, which we abandoned to pursue an Instagram strategy, which we dropped to pursue a Pinterest strategy. I’m starting to think what we really need is a strategy strategy.”

Yes, you need to be flexible. New social media platforms are developed fairly frequently; some disappear entirely. You may wish to adopt new platforms and in some instances, you may have no choice!

Planned giving is a complicated subject. The laws governing planned giving change fairly frequently, and in my opinion, nonprofits should reduce potential liability for planned giving options they may suggest to donors. We have all heard about inaccurate advice unintentionally provided by nonprofits to donors, and lawsuits that sometimes ensue.

I would strongly suggest that unless you have an experienced staff keeping track of the ever-changing laws affecting planned giving, let companies like Crescendo Interactive, Inc. take care of that information for you. Planned giving executives should focus instead on communicating the good work of their nonprofit organizations and their long-term needs. You can use social media to accomplish this very well today.

Some colleagues attending the 2012 conference have stated they are unsure of social media; several are afraid to tackle it. I would counsel them not to fear social media. Take the time to learn how to use it, but don’t let the “cart come before the horse.” You do not need to be present on every social media venue.

Identify those platforms that make sense, communicate clearly and regularly. Polish the diamond that is your website and hone-in on a thoughtful e-mail program. But don’t be left in the dust. More donors and potential donors are jumping on board the social media bandwagon. You need to be right there with them!

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