How one small nonprofit landed a $7 million donation

legacy gifts

Imagine this.

You arrive at your office on a quiet Monday morning. You pick up the phone, return a call, and discover the trajectory of your small shop will be changed forever.

You’re going to receive the biggest donation in the history of your organization: a bequest valued at an estimated $7 million.

It sounds like a dream – but it was reality for Laura Satin Levin, lead fundraiser at Dying With Dignity Canada, a national non-profit committed to improving quality of dying, and protecting end-of-life rights.

I had the chance to sit down with Laura to hear what led to this unexpected transformational gift from retired Vancouver entrepreneur David Jackson – and she shared a ton of valuable tips and practical ideas you can implement at your organization.

Laura, take us back to the moment you first heard the news about this gift - how did it feel?

It was actually a year ago this week…it was a slow summer, and it was a summer where I looked at the mid-year numbers and thought, “we have six months left in the year, and it's a steep mountain to climb." So, as any fundraiser does, you just wish for something magical or miraculous to just fall from the sky.

It was a Monday morning, and I came into the office, and I listened to my voice mail…I got a call from someone representing the estate of a potential donor looking for some information, and it was very matter-of-fact.

I called her back, and we just started talking - once she learned that we advocate for end-of-life rights and particularly, assisted dying, we found out the donor had had an assisted death on Friday.

When she revealed that it was Dave Jackson, it was a shock. First of all, we didn't know he was dying. We had just seen him a month ago. And once she told me he had died, she then went on to tell me that he had named us as the beneficiary of the majority of his estate. I was just floored.

I walked to my CEO's office - my CEO, Shanaaz Gokool, had a very close relationship with Dave - and I said, "You're going to want to sit down. I have some bad news, and I have some good news."

And I told her Dave died, and she just was shocked. And then I said, "And he left most of his estate to us, to Dying With Dignity Canada." And based on that call, I had a rough idea that the donation would be in the multi-millions.

We both cried - we were just so moved. I'll never forget that day. It's still very surreal.

It's huge. A gift of this size impacts your organization in so many ways. So, when you think back on the relationship, what do you think are the top three factors that ended up contributing to you receiving this gift?

I'm not a professional fundraiser by education. Same with my CEO, Shanaaz. I'm the only fundraiser, and Shanaaz and I work very closely together. She plays a big role in fundraising as well, particularly with major donors like Dave.

First, relationship building is a fundamental value here, in a way that's just natural and authentic. Because I'm the only fundraiser, I rely on my fellow team members, and our volunteers. They might not realize they're fundraising, but they are by being such caring, genuine, passionate ambassadors.

When I think back to how Dave first joined our organization... he's from Vancouver where we don't have an office, but we have a chapter and we have a very engaged board member, Dr. Sue Hughson, who's been with us for several years. Sue's not a fundraiser, either - she's a veterinarian. But she's a caring, passionate person, and she saw her job as just bringing people into the tent.

When Dave came in through the chapter and he met Sue, and they struck up a conversation, because he was interested in the issue. And through that conversation, he decided to get more involved and become a donor.

From there, I made sure my CEO maintained a really strong relationship with him. I would make sure that she was talking to him regularly. They would spend hours on the phone together. All I had to do was be a professional nag and make sure that I organized her, and I repeatedly nudged her to make the time. But once she had made the time, it was just sparks. It was easy to keep them connected.

That brings me to the second thing - investing the time. When I found out my CEO was going to Vancouver for a conference, I said, "Well, you have to meet Dave. If there's one thing that I want you to do when you're in Vancouver, is make time to have lunch with Dave."

We got some coaching from one of our board members, fundraiser Leigh Naturkach, and she said, "Don't beat around the bush. You tell him, 'Dave, I am coming to see you. I'm making the time. Tell me what dates. We're going to make sure we have some quality time together. It's important for me to see you. And I’m not taking no for an answer.'"

So, he was very receptive to that. They booked time for lunch, and they ended up meeting for four hours. My CEO messaged me after and said, "If this is what doing major gift fundraising is like, then sign me up. This is fun!"

I think it goes to show that Shanaaz really valued the importance of investing her time with our donors. She was going for a conference, she had lots of things to do, but she cleared the day.

At one point in the lunch, he said, "You're the CEO. Don't you have somewhere to go? It's been two hours." And she responded - "I'm here. I'm here to be with you. And that was my plan for the day."

The third factor is...we're such a small team and we all see ourselves as fundraisers. Because everyone feels so invested in the organization, any fundraising victory is a victory for all of us.

There's no silos. There's no, "I'm the fundraising department and you're the communication department." We're all fundraisers. Everyone knows our donors' names.

For example, when it comes to stewardship - every day, we're signing cards. The whole team, all nine of us. We're signing sympathy cards, thank you cards, birthday cards, congratulation cards. It's just what we do.

The team does it because they care, and they want to make sure they're building relationships, and making the time, and doing all those things for our donors.

So how can fundraisers spot a donor like David in their database - even if they aren't making a big gift?

Dave first came on board 2012 with a $50 membership fee, after meeting our board member, Sue, at an event, and asking "How do I get involved?"

So, that was 2012. A year later, he gave $100. And then a year after that, it was $1,000. And then he got a thank you call from a board member. Now, we do thank you calls to almost every single donor, including major donors. But for our organization, $1,000 is a major gift, and we make sure that anyone who gives us $1,000 gets a call from either the CEO or a board member.

And then at that point, our CEO met with him in person, and his next gift was $10,000.

If you give $1,000 to us, that’s a major gift for us. And $10,000 puts you among our top donors. So, for me as a fundraiser, even though major gifts isn't my full-time job, it was a no-brainer to make sure that our CEO regularly phoned him and connected with him. And he was really brought on the inside of the organization as much as possible.

You also want to make sure that you're treating your $50 donors as personal and high-touch a way as someone who came in at $1,000.

I think that's such an important message - there are donors with the capacity to give you multi-million dollar gifts, and chances are, they're starting with smaller donations. If you just get a bit more methodical about how you're engaging donors and taking care of them, with something as simple as a thank you call…that can be a wonderful opportunity to further that relationship.

So, is there anything you learned through this process that's changed the way that you fundraise?

I think we’re doing more of the things that we were already doing. One of the things you just said – that these donors are already there, so how do you deepen your relationship with them? That’s something I learned, and it’s changed the way I look at our existing donors.

When I first started in 2015, there was a tremendous amount of pressure because of the loss of our charitable status and uncertainty of the future of our fundraising (Dying With Dignity Canada was one of several advocacy groups who lost charitable status when the Canada Revenue Agency launched a series of controversial political-activity audits in 2012 - EL).

There was a feeling that we had to look outside the organization to find new major donors. There was a big push.

I think we learned as an organization that if you're prioritizing, of course you want to engage with potential major donors, but not at the expense of deepening your relationships with those who are already giving.

That was a big learning from this experience with Dave not to keep chasing the mega philanthropists thinking, "They'll write the cheque that will solve all our problems." Not at the expense of really trying to grow the relationship you have with some of your mid-level donors who might have the capacity to give more.

Yes – I love this message! So, based on your experience, is there one action you think fundraisers can take right now to move closer to securing their very own $7M bequest?

I think Dying With Dignity Canada is in a unique situation - planned giving is not something we shy away from. Death and dying is probably the number one thing that’s most stressful in anyone's life - their own death or the death of a loved one. So, it's not surprising that for the average organization, especially a small shop, talking about death and dying is low on their priority list with donors because it seems like such a downer.

But for us, it’s part and parcel of everything we do, and every conversation we have. So, it was a very natural fit to make sure planned giving was on our donors’ radar.

So, I would say one way to move closer is take a cue from us. Try to bring it more to the forefront – talk about how people can make a meaningful gift in their will, and don’t shy away from that conversation.

Don’t bring your own insecurity of death and dying to your conversations with donors - because chances are, if you have a close relationship, that could be a natural, meaningful next step for them to consider in their giving.

Do you have any practical tips for fundraisers who may be feeling a little hesitant about starting that conversation with their donors?

One best practice is sharing a story of a living donor that included a gift in their will. I try to profile people regularly, in our newsletters, and our blog. We're lucky that so many of our donors contribute in so many different ways. They can be chapter volunteers, or do other types of volunteer work, and from there, they often become a monthly donor - and I may ask them if I can profile them.

When we're giving them a forum like that to talk about their involvement with us, we often talk about planned giving. And many times they say, "Yes, I’ve already included you in my will." We just didn't know.

It's also a nice way, if you're engaging with a donor or volunteer, to say, "Well, I know that you're already a dedicated monthly donor, and many of our monthly donors also include Dying With Dignity Canada in their that something you've ever considered?" So, just keeping it in the conversation when you're speaking with volunteers and donors.

And also, any time we send mail appeals, it always says on our coupon, "Yes, I've left a gift in my will for Dying With Dignity Canada," with a little note: "Please let us know if you have so we can acknowledge you now and honor your wishes in the future."

We've gotten a lot of responses, so it was a great way of getting to know where bequests are. And for those who haven't included us in their will, it just plants that seed - "Well, I haven't, but that makes sense to me."

We also started a Legacy Giving Society, and named it after Christie Bentham, who made a legacy gift to us in 2016. When we started it two years ago, we had six known bequests, and now we have 26.

Laura, is there anything I haven't asked you that you think it's important for readers to know? 

I know it sounds cliché, but we say this at Dying With Dignity Canada - we always put the person first, whether it's how we do education, how we do our personal support, or our advocacy. We’re always trying to put ourselves in the perspective of the person who's at end-of-life and who's trying to navigate their rights.

It's no different when it comes to fundraising. We're such a small team. It's such a sensitive issue. People are so vulnerable when they come to us as donors, as supporters. Even if they just sign a petition, or have a very basic question, we know the reason they're reaching out to us is because something is going on in their life that’s traumatic.

So, we always try to put their experience first, and engage with them in a caring, empathetic way. And I think because we all share that value, it just lends itself again to just building those relationships, and being good fundraisers.

Thanks for sharing this amazing story and your fundraising wisdom, Laura - and congratulations on your $7 million bequest.

If you’d like to find out more about Dying With Dignity Canada and David Jackson’s transformational gift, you can read more here: Dying With Dignity Canada announces largest gift in the organization’s 38-year history.

 If you liked this post, consider signing up for our newsletter

Great fundraising ideas delivered weekly

Connect with me!

    We won't ever spam you! Unsubscribe at any time. Check our privacy policy and terms of use.