June 21, 2018

Joe Thiegs photo

Co-written by Ellen Guettler

KEXP didn’t expect that its first-ever realized bequest would also be the largest philanthropic gift in the station’s history and one of the largest estate gifts ever received by a public media organization.

The donor, known outside of KEXP only as Suzanne, out of respect for her desire to give anonymously during her lifetime, gave a gift of just under $10 million to the station through her estate plan. The planned gift was announced in April of this year and has been transformative for KEXP.

Suzanne had shared her intent to make an estate gift—although not the size or amount—with Betsy Troutman, KEXP’s Director of Development. Troutman says that Suzanne was a strong believer in the station’s mission to connect people and bring joy through the power of music. She had given generously, particularly during the station’s 2013 capital campaign. But, like many other KEXP donors, she was relatively young.

“I set it aside in my mind,” Troutman remembers of the conversation about estate planning. “I thanked her, of course. But I thought, well, there will be time to talk about that.”

Both Suzanne’s death in her early 50s and the size of her bequest came as a surprise to KEXP. Most of the gift will be placed in a long-term reserve and board-directed endowment to fund new programs that will eventually become self-sustaining. The first investment will launch new programs focused on education and community outreach.

When the station learned of the gift, they didn’t have much of a planned giving program in place. After all, their listener base is younger; most of their donors are middle-aged.

Troutman said her department had talked about creating a planned giving club for four or five years, and they’d gotten as far as creating a CRM code to track known and possible bequest donors. But they weren’t focusing a lot of their time on this giving opportunity.

“Anecdotally we knew we were in some estate plans because we’d get calls from estate lawyers for our information,” she recalls. “They didn’t always share who the people were, but we had a sense that this was happening.”

The bequest, in addition to directly supporting KEXP’s programs and services in a remarkable way, also served to launch the station’s planned giving recognition club, called The Reverb Society.

Troutman thinks both the endowment for new programs and The Reverb Society would have been very meaningful to Suzanne.

“KEXP was a way for her to support her personal values in the world,” Troutman says. “She would want everyone to give and participate in whatever way they could.”

The experience of receiving a transformative estate gift has also left KEXP with some powerful lessons.

Relationship-building isn’t difficult when it’s authentic.

Suzanne began giving modestly to the station in 2010. Her cultivation as a major donor began with a simple phone call in 2013.

“I called to say thank you after a generous on-air drive gift and invited her to lunch,” Troutman remembers. “There was no pitch. I later gave her our case for support for our ‘new home’ capital campaign, and she made a gift the very next day.”

Troutman and her team continued to reach out in small ways.

“[We’d send] invitations to see a band, or she might have mentioned she was going to New Orleans and we sent suggestions of where to see music. No big hoopla, just things like, ‘we’re thinking of you; you might enjoy reading this.’”

“We build all kinds of relationships with many people; [Suzanne] was one of them. We didn’t really do anything but maintain an authentic relationship with someone.”

Investing time and budget resources in planned giving is worth it.

“Most planned donors are the ones who support the station time and again with one-hundred-dollar gifts,” says Troutman. “They may not have the ability to give a huge cash gift in their life, but [planned giving] could be such a meaningful vehicle for them.”

Making planned giving a visible giving option for the audience—even a younger crowd—can have a significant impact.

About ten people have joined KEXP’s Reverb Society in the first months after its launch. In February, KEXP received its second estate gift, this time of $20,000, from a donor who previously was unknown to the station.

The early support for The Reverb Society bolsters the notion that donors like to give to already-successful organizations. Some staff fear that a transformative gift will give donors the perception that a station doesn’t need their money. KEXP’s experience refutes that. “I would say that 95—or more—percent of the reactions have been positive, absolutely positive,” Troutman says. “I think our general listenership, and people who engage with us, also felt that it was a gift for them. It was really amazing to watch.”

In reality, large charitable gifts often demonstrate that an organization has earned donors’ trust that their money will be used effectively to benefit the community, and will inspire others to give as well. “You give because you care about the success of this place and mission,” Troutman explains. “When someone makes a significant gift, it means other people care about it as much as you do. It’s social proof.”

Planned giving: Just start somewhere.

Has your station received a phone call from an attorney asking for planned giving information? Has a donor mused about the possibility of including you in her will? As a first step, make sure planned giving information including your station’s sample bequest language, legal name and address, federal tax ID number, and a contact name, phone number, and email address are available on your website. Create a form for planned gift donors to provide information about their intended gifts to your station.

From there, set your sights on what you can do to get closer to meeting your station’s planned-giving potential.

Troutman has this encouragement for other stations: “Figure out what’s within your capacity to do, maintain, and do it! Maybe it’s coding people, or [creating on-air] spots. Whatever you can do with your capacity, just start.”

Getting planned-giving on-air promotion up and running, for example, may be easier than you think. Sending email messages to long-time donors and members, sharing stories of other donors who have included your station in their plans and asking if they’d consider doing the same, is effective too. Development staff can be trained if they’re not already comfortable asking donors to consider making planned gifts and discussing the topic during in-person visits.

Tens of thousands of people are likely considering the benefits of supporting their local stations in their wills or other estate plans. Many donors won’t realize the option exists or that your station wants such gifts, unless you tell them.

Suzanne’s generosity will reverberate throughout KEXP, the Seattle area, and the nation for decades to come. And, you never know… the next donor with whom you talk might be your station’s Suzanne.

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Joe Thiegs photo