An Interview with The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Are you new to the development or gift planning world and feeling a little overwhelmed? Have you been in fundraising for years, but could perhaps use a fresh perspective? How about we pause a moment from our hectic lives and learn from someone who has been in the trenches and has learned valuable tools over the years that you might find extremely helpful.
I have personally witnessed the creativity, hard work and success that has come from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). I believe that can be attributed to the amazing gift planning team and their executive director, Elizabeth Ayers. I was privileged to participate in a couple speaking engagements with Elizabeth. I could see right away that she was passionate about her job and had gained wonderful experience and wisdom from her 20+ years in the gift planning profession. Before I share the valuable tools Elizabeth relayed in our interview, I think it would be helpful to learn about her professional experience.
Elizabeth joined UNC in 2008 and became executive director in 2012. She has since served on the Board of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners (NACGP) from 2015 through 2017 and as the Conference Chair for the National Conference on Philanthropic Planning (NCPP) 2017 in Baltimore. She is also a member of the North Carolina Planned Giving Council (NCPGC) and served on its Board from 2013 through 2016.
Prior to joining UNC, she worked at The Ohio State University where she served as Director of Planned Giving for the Medical Center and Associate Director of Planned Giving for the University. She worked for the Columbus Foundation, served on non-profit boards and committees and was president of the Central Ohio Planned Giving Council in 2007.
Ayers has presented on various charitable topics at local and national conferences including Partnership for Philanthropic Planning (PPP), NCPGC, Crescendo’s Practical Planned Giving Conference (PPGC), Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), Wealth Counsel, the North Carolina Community College Fundraisers’ state conference and Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) North Carolina state conference.
She has practiced law in the areas of estate and charitable planning and civil litigation. She holds a JD from Capital University, M. M. from Ohio University and a B. M. from Wittenberg University.
Bree: Thank you, Elizabeth, for your willingness to chat with me and share your experiences working in the gift planning field. So, my first question is, how did you get into fundraising?
Elizabeth: Thank you, Bree. It is my pleasure to speak with you! Well, first I was a full-time piano teacher. I ran music festivals and judged competitions but wanted to do something more with my career. I thought it would be rewarding, fun and positive to do something in the non-profit field. So after deep thought and analysis of my strengths and interests, I went to law school and fell in love with the law! I practiced civil litigation for four years, and it taught me to analyze situations from different viewpoints and to coherently argue for my clients.
In law school, I had a teacher who suggested that I look at gift planning as a career. I met with every gift planner I could to learn about the profession and stayed in touch during my civil litigation years. One of them recommended me for my first job at the Columbus Foundation. I was called to interview, went through the process, was offered the job as a gift planning officer, and my work in this field began.
Bree: This is my takeaway from what you just shared—Do your homework! You were witnessing the inner workings of nonprofits and observing different gift planners and their programs.
Elizabeth: Yes, and I met a variety of people in the field, many whom I respected and observed whenever I could. I learned from all of them and have always tried to surround myself with people who know more than me and who have kindness and integrity.
Bree: That’s great, Elizabeth! We have the ability to learn so much from others!
Another question: if you could give one piece of advice to someone in the gift planning/development world, what would you say?
Elizabeth: Find yourself a good mentor or mentors. Whether it is your boss, whether it is someone in this field that you respect…Find someone. I still feel like there is always something new to learn and am blessed to have wonderful colleagues to call upon. For example, I am still fascinated listening to how people explain technical solutions and program ideas. There are different ways to communicate with donors and colleagues, and I want to be able to communicate with all of them. When I hear someone in fundraising say that a conference has nothing to offer, I always think, “Well, there has got to be a person to talk to or some interesting point somewhere.” There are always ways to enhance your knowledge!
Bree: Sometimes gift planners get stuck in their ways and do not feel open to learning anything new. I think you are absolutely right. We should all have an openness to learning new things.
Elizabeth: It also can help you when you think, “Have I grown stale?” Or, sometimes it can validate what you are doing as well. You might hear someone sharing something and you think, “Yes, I’m on it! I’m doing that!”
Bree: What would you say is your favorite part of your job?
Elizabeth: I love using my legal training to help people. For instance, I recently “zoomed “with a couple in their 60s, and this is the first time they have worked through their estate plan. They have an excellent estate planning attorney who partners with me frequently. Being able to help them feel good about what they are doing, to come alongside their advisor and explain how things work at Carolina, and to talk to them in a manner they understand, those are the types of things I love about my job!
I am also responsible for a program and for leading a talented team. Watching them grow to be successful and building a strong program for an exceptional public University are also incredibly rewarding responsibilities. I have discovered the joy in leading and building and am grateful for my opportunity to do so.
However, I believe gift planners can have very meaningful careers and experiences without having to move up into management because of our specialty. There are always fun challenges along the way.
Bree, I simply love our profession.
Bree: And that joy is so evident, Elizabeth! Quite infectious! You are most certainly in the right role!
Elizabeth, one thing I hear often from folks is their trouble with time management. Do you have a secret time management tip to share that you have learned along your journey?
Elizabeth: In the University setting, our two most important priorities are the development officers and the donors. They come first. My team and I frequently discuss our goals and priorities. Our priority is taking care of your colleagues and giving them the tools they need to be successful. And for donors, you become a charitable advisor and a conduit for them to give to a charitable purpose near and dear to their hearts. Both channels lead to raising money for the charitable institution that hired you, and we try never losing sight of that.
I start out each day by setting and resetting my priorities; sometimes they shift because of management deadlines, but I always analyze what I need to do to be successful at raising money for Carolina and keeping our program strong. I try to not get sidelined by the other things. One thing I like to do is ask my donors and major gift officer colleagues I am assisting about his or her timeframe. I will say, “Are you ok if I get this to you by…,” and I’ll build in a few days so that I can meet their expectations. Another thing -- learn to ask for help. I have seen too many people think they are the only ones who can handle something, but you need to trust others and, if you’re a manager, give others that experience.
Bree: Those are great tips! What are some of the dos and do nots of being a fundraiser that you have learned personally?
Elizabeth: 1. Share credit freely. It is not about you. It is a team effort. At my first gift planning job I worked with a colleague who constantly gave credit. If I said something, he made sure people knew I said it. He was confident, generous with his time, well-respected and highly successful. He was a role model for how I wanted to treat others and be treated.
2. Collaborate. Sometimes I will run something by someone for a second opinion. If you are not confident about something, find someone who you trust to give good counsel. Ask: “Am I thinking about this correctly?” Do not go rogue and do your own thing. This is a profession where you cannot go alone if you want to be successful.
Bree: That is gold right there! So good! But, what about for a one-person shop?
Elizabeth: Even then, there are still people to lean on, but they might have to go outside themselves. Get to know the good advisors in their area and build relationships with them. Also, one of the best things that happened to me was becoming involved with NACGP [National Association of Charitable Gift Planners] – attending the conferences and serving on the national board. I’ve found many friends and colleagues who stand ready to help when asked.
Bree: Would you be willing to share some experiences you have had with your donors? Good and bad.
Elizabeth: I had a favorite donor who for years requested our materials. I knew he was interested in gift planning and the week I was going to travel to his state and call him for an appointment, he called me and we setup a meeting. That started a 3-year relationship with him and his wife. He was trying to figure out how to structure their estate and always had questions about the latest articles he had read on the subject. I exercised patience and enjoyed talking through their concerns and how to find solutions through charitable gifting. They ended up leaving a much larger structured deferred gift than they imagined at the start. It was incredibly rewarding for them, me and the non-profit I served.
For a bad experience, I remember there was one donor who just would allude to a bequest but not commit to details. And after all these years of chasing him down, I found out he was leaving us a very small gift that did not match our research of his potential and what we thought he would give based upon interest. In that instance, I could not push anymore. You lose people when you push too much. But it was a big disappointment.
Another big disappointment was when I worked with an older couple, and long story short, the perfect solution for them was placing some of their low-dividend stock into a CRT which would provide three times as much income. It was a wonderful solution that addressed their income concern, but the husband passed away without putting the plan in place and left his wife in a financial mess. To this day it still haunts me.
Bree: That must have been so frustrating. There are definitely hardships in this job. To end on a more encouraging note, Elizabeth, do you have some final tips or last comments to leave for others to think about and consider?
Elizabeth: Remember this: You do not need to know everything. I could give examples where donors told me they respected me and wanted to work with me when I told them I needed to go find an answer.
Bree: What a nice little bow to wrap up a wonderful and encouraging interview. Thank you for your time, Elizabeth. For the folks reading this, we would love to read your thoughts and comments. Maybe you too have learned a thing or two in your experiences. Feel free to share this with us! We would love to hear the ways you are stewarding your donors and growing your planned giving program!