Dear Charlotte, Dear Angela, Dear Donor,

In 2003, when I was the Vice President of Development of Catholic Charities in Saint Louis, I wrote a letter to a deceased woman. It was published in the Catholic Charities Newsletter. I’d like to share a modified version of that letter with you.

Dear Charlotte:

Just prior to Thanksgiving , we learned of your death. We invited you to one of our special events. The post office returned your invitation with a label marked “undeliverable/deceased.”

You passed away April 2003. It just so happens that in October 2003, Catholic Charities was going through a difficult cash-flow shortage. The leadership was having serious discussions about employee lay-offs and services cut backs. Then, the news came, some woman named Charlotte—a donor we never knew—had left four paid on death bank accounts designating Catholic Charities as the beneficiary. The total gifts exceeded $500,000. The cash flow shortage was over.

Charlotte, I want you to know that not a single day has passed when I have not said a prayer for you and for all of the people you have helped through your extraordinary donation.  I vowed from that day forward never to forget you. As an organization, we vowed to hold ourselves accountable by imagining that you resided at the head of our conference table, and from time to time, you would ask, “What did you do with my money?”

My only regret, Charlotte, is that I was never able to thank you when you were still alive. I don’t know much about you. I have no idea why you left Catholic Charities so much money. I can only guess as to what you wanted us to do with your donation.  I can only assume you wanted to help as many people as possible.  Thank you, Charlotte. (Signed) Dan Shasserre.

Now, here I am in a similar development position at Channel 9, the Nine Network of Public Media.  It was October 25, 2010 when I learned of the death of Angela. Our staff remains saddened by the news. None of us were aware that she had passed away, and Angela’s funeral services were private. Still, Channel 9 will receive a generous percentage of Angela’s estate.  Yet, I am somewhat disturbed. I’m disappointed that I didn’t know Angela. I want to ask her why? What motivated you to do this? What do you want us to do with your money? I want to ask you if I can tell others about your gift. Yes, I do want to say “thank you” but, mostly I just want to talk and listen. I want to be reminded, day in and day out, of your story—so we remember how privileged we are, here at Channel 9, that you trusted us enough to donate so generously.

I am tempted to write another letter. I want to know what motivated Angela. Was it a great appreciation for the public television programs she enjoyed, like Nova, Frontline, Masterpiece Theatre? Was it because she appreciated unbiased news from PBS? Was it something from the past, perhaps, a realization of the positive learning experience from our children programs?  Or, was Angela investing in the future of public media because she realized the potential of our collaborative community engagement projects focused to bring improvements in healthcare, education, arts and culture, science and technology, the environment and more? We’ll never know.

If you are a person like Charlotte or Angela…a generous person-one who has already decided to leave some portion of your estate to your favorite non-profit organization, please contact the organization. Speak to the planned giving officer, or anyone, and tell them exactly what you want them to do with your money. Tell them why you are making this gift. They really want to know.

And if you have included Channel 9, the Nine Network of Public Media, in your estate plans, we have many people here who want to listen to your story…please call Jack, Amy, Dick, Nancy, Suzie, Craig, Kate and Kay. Call anyone of us–me too, Dan Shasserre, 314-512-9610.

Fundraising in this economy? I say, go for it…

According to researchers at Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropic Planning who research, write and distribute a report for Giving USA, overall donations to non-profit organizations declined 3.2% in 2009. This follows an overall decline in donation of 2.4% in 2008. While non-profit organization results varied greatly in 2009, giving from individuals, which accounts for $227.4 billion in the United States, showed no decline with 0.0% change from 2008.

Isn’t that interesting, giving from individuals did not decline, even in the midst of high unemployment and recession conditions. Realizing historically that 75% of all philanthropic giving comes from individuals, not corporations or foundations, you can see why the emphasis for non-profit fundraisers is on cultivation of individual donors.

  • Giving to the United Ways, Jewish federations and other so called public-society benefit groups declined by 4.2%; education declined 3.2%; giving to the Arts and Culture declined 2%.
  • Contributions to social services organizations, environmental organizations, and healthcare raised a modest 2-4% in 2009 after declining sharply in 2008.
  • Foundation giving dropped by 8.6% to $38.4 billion, while corporate giving rose by 5.9% accounting for $14 billion.
  • Bequest revenue from individual estate was $23.8 billion in 2009. While this category was off 23% in 2009, it holds great promise in the future for non-profits who seek these gifts. It is estimated that over the next 40 years more than $50 trillion will pass from generation to generation with an estimated $ 7 trillion or more being donated to non-profits. So, while no one can predict our economic  future, it seems reasonable to recommend specific steps that non-profit organizations can take to assure that they will emerge as a healthy entity poised for growth when the economic downturn has passed.


  1. Strengthen your Case or Support: Make sure that you have communicated effectively to Board members, staff, and donors about the tremendous positive impact that your organization has made in the past and will make in the future. Make sure that the benefits that you provide for individuals in the community are meaningful, well understood, and documented for authenticity.
  2. Create a fundraising strategy that truly excites and motivates your Board of Directors: If your Board of Directors is complacent, if they are not giving an exceptional amount of time and money to your organization, then you have a problem that must be fixed. It’s a top priority. A Board of Directors must be ambassadors for your cause, advocates for your vision, donors of time and money.  They, above all, must be willing to connect you to others like themselves.
  3. Get the staff involved: The staff must be informed, engaged and motivated. If you create an environment where employees are respected and their good work is acknowledged you can expect a high level of achievement and an extraordinary degree of commitment. So, set the bar high, establish clear goals, encourage employee involvement, acknowledge and reward exceptional performance.
  4. Renew a commitment to donors: Through personal dialog in all correspondence make sure your donors “feel” special. Nothing is more important to a donor than personal attention. Say “thank-you” more often, with more urgency, with more sincerity, with more personal attention to detail. Be a good steward of every gift to earn the right to ask for continued support with confidence of success.
  5. Create a written development plan with 3-5 specific goals for each department member: Your development department needs specific objectives with a clear written tactical plan on how these objectives will be achieved. Goals without written plans are just wishful thinking.
  6. Keep score: Reaching revenue objectives can be FUN….it’s a game. So, to win at this game you have to keep score. Look at funding trends over the past three-five years. Benchmark where you stand now in all income categories. Establish reasonable expectations for the future. Keep score. And, report weekly/monthly.
  7. Celebrate victories: There is nothing more demoralizing to staff than to do great work without acknowledgement for a job well done. Pay attention to staff just as you do to donors. Say “thank-you” more often, with more urgency, with more sincerity, with more personal attention to detail.
  8. Keep your eye on the short term while putting strategies in place for the long run: Increasing annual revenue, improving website donations, upgrading mid-range donations, increasing major gifts, gaining more gifts from corporations and foundations, all must be achieved. An effective fundraising plan should expect gifts from every giving category to go up. At the same time, future gifts through donor gift planning should be in the mix.  Create a marketing plan for Planned Gifts this year. In most organizations, planned giving gets the least amount of attention and resources. Yet, for well established organizations with good reputations, estate gifts can provide millions of dollars year after year.  Today, there are 77.3 million baby boomers in the United States alone. Sadly, only 7% of them have net assets larger than $250,000. Of those with assets, 12% will leave a legacy gift to non-profits. The amount left to non-profit organizations will be billions nationwide.  In Missouri, hundreds of millions are donated to non-profits annually. Make sure your organization deserves a gift, and then asks for it.
  9. Keep your expenses in line but give your staff enough resources to reach their goals: Take a close look at the past results in every income category. Set specific reasonable objectives to improve income in all categories. Finally, establish and monitor budgets keeping an eye on ROI objectives.  Even non-profits should track ROI in a comprehensive manner.  Think of it as good “stewardship.”
  10. Stay focused; say NO to anything that takes you off track:  It’s easy, in most organizations, to get side tracked. There is much to do, too few people to get it done. Once you have identified objectives and created a written development plan, this document must be transparent with buy in from upper management and the Board. Then, execute the plan. Say “no” to lesser priorities.

Here’s a quick look at history…

While economic and market statistics are ever changing, history is the best guide we have to inform and educate ourselves during uncertain times.  Whether it is the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the ‘70s malaise, the 1987 recession, the bursting tech bubble or more recent catastrophic events such as the September 11 terrorist attacks or the devastation of hurricane Katrina, media mania would have you believe that all is lost. When, in fact, in every case, we not only survived these catastrophic events we came out stronger and healthier as a nation despite them.

Consider this: In a December 1984 Time Magazine cover story, “Banking Takes a Beating” detailed the fallout from deregulation of banks.  “Bankers now face their most strenuous survival since the Great Depression,” wrote the authors.  “Because of poor management, overzealous lending and some bad luck, commercial bank profits have been battered.”  As Mark Twain once observed, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Then came “The Crash” on October 19, 1987.  Time Magazine’s cover story was titled “Panic Grips the Globe.”  On Black Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6% in one day.  Within days of the crash, however, the Dow had recovered almost half its losses.  The year ended on a positive note, with an annual 2.3 percent return.

As for fundraising specifically, what happens in times of crisis?  Once again, let’s look at history.  Past trends help us understand what may occur the remainder in the future.

One important source for understanding the relationships among giving, the economy and crisis is The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  In a recent article, this respected publication highlights 13 major events that have had a serious impact on the economy since 1940.  All of these, it would appear, were more catastrophic than our recent recession.  In each case, the U.S. stock market generally recovered within a year to eighteen months.

This is a time to remind ourselves that we live in a land of enormous wealth and extraordinary opportunity. We can believe the newspaper headlines and television hype claiming that greed has crippled our economy. Or, you can look at the facts

  • our markets have not ceased to function;
  • our economy has not collapsed;
  • commerce still continues for all essential goods and services;
  • more than 90% of Americans are employed;
  • most companies are still operating aggressively; and
  • most non-profit organizations are continuing their fundraising plans
  • many non-profit organizations have exceeded their goals, even these past two years

Non-profit organizations need to return to their “mission” with resolve.  They need to craft creative strategies for strengthening revenue and refocusing effort.

Philanthropist John Templeton, when asked about the economy, said “No one should feel so conceited as to know the answer.”  So, while I will make no effort to predict the economic conditions for 2010 and beyond, I do believe now is the time to stick to our plans, strengthen our resolve, be motivated by our purpose, our expectations for success and the importance of our mission.


Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth
who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience
and just plain love for one another – Erma Bombeck

Letter to a Deceased Woman

There is no act of kindness greater than a bequest gift to your favorite charitable organization. Yet, only 7% of donors in America have left a gift to charity. Also, bequest donors are reluctant to identify themselves while they are alive.  This letter was first published in a Catholic Charities newsletter in 2003. It’s purpose was to remind the organization of how important each and every donor is….how we can never take their gifts for granted. And, also, to thank every generous bequest donor as we encourage others to do the same.

Dear Charlotte:

One year ago, just prior to Thanksgiving, we learned of your death. We had invited you to attend our annual Thanksgiving mass. The post office returned the invitation with a label marked “undeliverable/deceased.”

Fortunately, Teresa, one of our data entry staff members recognized your name. She remembered, years ago, you had made arrangements with four banks, to have Catholic Charities the ‘pay-upon death’ beneficiary of your money-market accounts.

You passed away April, 2003. It just so happens that in October 2003 Catholic Charities was going through an unusually difficult cash-flow shortage. By November our leadership was having serious conversations about cut-backs. Then, the news came to us, a women named Charlotte, a donor we never knew, had left us a gift at each of four banks. The total was $543,187. Our cash flow shortage was over.

Charlotte, I want you to know not a single day has passed when I have not gone to our Good Samaritan Chapel to say a prayer for you and all of the people you have helped through your extraordinary donation. Our President, Jim Stutz and I had a conversation a few day’s after depositing your gift. We vowed from that day forward we will never forget you- the women named Charlotte. We vowed to hold ourselves accountable in this way….we will imagine that you reside at the head of our meeting table… from time to time you will ask us “what did you do with my money?”

This last year, your money (and that of other donors as well), helped us to collect and distribute more than a million pounds of food to families who were hungry, more than 120,000 meals were served to the homeless, more than 1,700 unemployed adults were given job skills training and job search assistance, nearly 33,000 children and 36,000 older adults were provided compassionate care.

Charlotte, we invite you to reside at our meetings. We want to share more details. We want you to know more about our plans and aspirations. You will continue to challenge us to do more on behalf of the poor. We promise we will have a good answer to your question, “what did you do with my money?” My only regret, Charlotte, is I was never able to thank you when you were still alive. Thank you.


Daniel R. Shasserre