Proper relationship management is indispensable within legacy fundraising. To understand more about it, we interviewed Karin Gerritsen. For the past 17 years, she has been a relationship manager for legacies at the World Wildlife Fund- Netherlands (WWF-NL). A few weeks before this interview, she retired.
Karin, how are you doing at the moment?
Well, on one hand, I love the freedom of not having to work, but on the other hand, I had the best job in the world. Luckily, I had some appointments with the new relationship manager this week, and I will certainly have a few more. Visiting donors was not possible during COVID-19 and my donors greatly appreciated when I visited them to say goodbye personally and introduced them to the new relationship manager.
What did you like about your job? And what did you find difficult?
Actually, I didn’t find anything difficult because you don’t have to talk about death with donors. You talk about life because you always ask about the reasons behind the consideration of leaving a gift in a will. Then you hear the most beautiful life stories of people who have travelled to distant countries, have seen a lot of nature or have become involved in nature in some other way. So I mostly talk about life and, of course, about ‘when someone is no longer here’ and how the person wants to have things arranged then. It’s really nice to see that it gives people peace of mind having their wishes arranged.
What developments have you seen in the past 17 years?
Many more charities have become involved in legacy fundraising. Also universities and cultural organizations have received fewer subsidies. Incomes out of legacies have increased enormously during that time. And legacy programs are much better integrated and embedded within organizations.
You also see a shift in relationships. People from before the war, the Silent Generation, are also really silent. They save and do not spend. They think ‘I have now saved for it and must give it to a good cause’. For example, last week, I visited an older man from that generation and wondered why he never spent anything on himself. But that generation is slowly disappearing. Baby boomers spend more and are also a lot more critical and outspoken. You also see that the younger people are less loyal to charities. That’s why stewardship is more important than ever.
What competencies and personal qualities should a relationship manager have?
In my opinion, a twenty-four-year-old cannot do this job. You need someone with some life experience to fill this position and be capable of doing this job. You often talk to people who have lost their partner or have no children. And you have to be able to keep up with that. To be clear, I love young people but this job is more for a mature person who understands the peaks and valleys of life.
What are you most proud of in your work?
I really like that so many people integrate gifts in their wills for a good cause. People who feel connected to WWF and want to preserve nature. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to get to know a lot of them. And of course, I’m pretty proud of our annual spring brunch, which is always a very well attended event by our pledgers. For example, when we organized this event a few years ago in Ouwehands Zoo, there were around 400 people. It’s great that people are still talking about it. I am also proud of my director, who responds very well to the public. For example, there was a critical documentary recently, and it was so good to see that she talked to the media, honestly and openly admitting: ‘We were wrong, but we learned lessons from that’. She implemented the lessons learned immediately throughout the entire organization. This is vitally important in building and retaining trust with people who are pledging or considering to leave a gift in their will.
Do you prefer visiting people at home, meeting them at the office or calling by telephone?
Well, that depends on the person. Some people don’t want you to come to their home and prefer to come to the office. And some people like to talk on the phone, especially in COVID-19 times. But still, many people want to see you. People want to find out if it is a good organization, who the people behind are, and whether or not they can trust this person. Especially if they are considering your organization to be the executor of their will. In this case, people also like to show you their home and where you can find everything. And if people are in their own environment, it is sometimes easier and more relaxed for them to have difficult conversations.
Do you have any advice for the new generation of legacy relationship managers?
First, really listen carefully to what someone wants, ask the right questions and document everything very well in a protected environment or filing system so that not everyone within your organization has access to the information.
For example, if someone has a dog, write down the name of the dog. If you call again and you know the name, that person will think: ‘Wow, that person remembers my dog’s name.’ These details may seem small but are very important because they create a bond that you want to have. Furthermore, it is also nice to confirm your visit by email beforehand and always thank them afterwards for being so nicely welcomed. I also always liked to bring a small present. Talking about home visits: take your time. I used to think that I could do four visits a day, but then you’re looking at the clock too much. Try averaging about 1.5 hours per visit.
Do you have one last piece of advice for organizations?
Nowadays, you see a greater focus on marketing in legacy fundraising, but legacy giving is often about personal contact. The visits and personal conversations are extremely important. We are talking about people who are considering entrusting you with everything they have built up. You can’t do that just by email or phone. Being able to look someone in the eyes is essential for gaining and maintaining trust.
Legacy fundraising may generate a lot of income, but there is also a lot of work involved. That is sometimes underestimated. That work will only increase, also with the administration side of legacies. So there really should be more attention from management teams and boards. More budget, more FTEs, but also good support, so that relationship managers can be relieved of administrative tasks or internal hiccups where possible. So that they can really focus on what they are supposed to do: manage relationships.
July 2021 – Elly Lont