Bequests boost revenue at Zoo Society

By Todd Cohen

ASHEBORO, N.C. — In 1981 and 1982, the North  Carolina Zoo Society in Asheboro received a total of nearly $400,000 from its first estate gift ever.

In 1987, having raised over $7 million in a capital campaign to support the North America exhibit at the North Carolina Zoo and exceeded by $1 million the total it needed to raise to match $24 million in state funding, the Zoo Society launched a program to secure planned gifts through wills and other estate planning.

That effort has generated a total of nearly $20 million in “realized” gifts from 88 estates, and the Zoo Society is aware of planned gifts from 290 other estates that are expected to result, “very conservatively,” in at least $35 million in gifts, says Russ Williams, director of planned and major giving for the Zoo  Society.

In 2012, the Zoo Society raised over $8.9 million, excluding investment income, up from over $4.7 million a year earlier.

Of the total raised, 33 distributions from 18 estates totaled over $6.2 million, while membership dues from the Zoo Society’s 30,000 member households totaling roughly 100,000 people generated $1.7 million, up from $1.65 million a year earlier.

Planned giving is a strategy that requires patience, Williams says.

Since 1987, when the Zoo Society launched its Lions Pride program to recognize donors who have told the organization they have provided for it in their wills and estates plans, he says, he has found it takes roughly seven years for those gifts to begin to be realized.

After its initial estate gift in 1981 and 1982, for example, the Zoo Society did not receive additional estate gifts until 1990 and 1991, and they totaled $31,000 combined and even may have been set up before the organization launched its planned giving program, Williams says.

The value of estate gifts also can show big swings from year to year, he says, ranging from under $100,000 some years to several hundred thousand dollars or even several million dollars.

To be successful, Williams says, planned giving programs also require treating all donors and members as if they were major and planned givers.

That includes answering the phone before it rings three times; getting back to people the same day with answers to their questions; making sure donors receive a receipt for a gift a day or two after it is received; and sending hand-written thank-you notes for gifts of $150 or more.

“Our strategy,” Williams says, “is to be really customer oriented to members.”

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