How to Thrive: 15 Habits of Successful Planned Giving Pros

At first I thought this blog should explore the habits of successful planned giving professionals. It still does. But as I was writing it, I kept thinking about the definition of “successful” and how that word limits our thinking.

“Successful” ties us to visions of “top of the heap,” “the best” and “above all others.”

That’s not how we should think in our line of work.

You see, success can be variable. Personal. For us, it’s certainly tied to annual goals, numbers of legacy donors and the like. But it’s also tied to the very nebulous process of building relationships and connections, and discovering intentions.

With that in mind, we offer these habits more as routines or mindsets that enable you to thrive in whatever ways propel you forward in your personal and professional lives. Naturally, all aspects of one’s life tie into one another; when you feel and do well in one area, it affects the other.

Let’s start with …


1. You surround yourself with smarter people. 

I’m a firm believer in self-awareness. It’s really important to understand we all have gaps; we all have blind spots. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you who compensate for your weaknesses.

WANT MORE TO PONDER? I talk about this point and more in a recent podcast with Eddie Thompson of Thompson & Associates.

2. You strive for excellence, not perfection.

If perfection is your goal, you’re in for a life of suffering and frustration. Instead, aim for what you personally define as excellence without comparing yourself to others.                                                                                                                                

3. You know that you’re enough.

You don’t try to be everything to everybody. That’s exhausting—and confusing. Tempted to think you’re not good enough? Blogger Madison Sonnier says to remember this:

“The people who seem to have it all do not. When you look at other people through a lens of compassion and understanding rather than judgment and jealousy, you are better able to see them for what they are—human beings. They are beautifully imperfect human beings going through the same universal challenges that we all go through.”

4. You tell yourself “it is what it is” when something’s out of your control.

Adopting this mantra isn’t about giving in or giving up. Releasing the need for control when it is beyond your power stops harmful negative self-talk. It’s about release and respect, acknowledging that there will be stressful situations in our lives, and doing what we can do minimize bad outcomes but also keeping the situation in healthy perspective.

5. You don’t beat yourself up when you make a mistake.

Unfortunately, our society says mistakes are failures, and failures are unacceptable. Leaders are beholden to boards, stockholders, supporters. But if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not growing. Learning from mistakes is key. Review the situation from a neutral perspective or, better yet, hold team post-mortems. What did you learn and how can you affect a better outcome in the future?

HOW ARE YOU: Feeling drained? You may have hit your surge capacity. Power up with these 13 tips from Stelter to revive you and your donors.


6. You tackle 1 Big Thing every day.

You take charge of your day and your tasks, not the other way around. Feel empowered and in control by doing at least one thing that’s been nagging at you to complete, like editing newsletter copy or cleaning donor files. No matter what the task is, once your brain recognizes that it has been complete, it will reward you with dopamine.

7. You trust in others’ capabilities.

You let go and let your staff, team members and others do their jobs. That doesn’t mean you’re hands-off or don’t perform regular check-ins to monitor progress or problems. Making sure your people know you believe in them is powerful.

Leadership is making others feel empowered—and feel safe—to consider, vet, plan and try unconventional strategies.

WATCH & THINK: “In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others, so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people so that we may gain. We have it backwards. Right?” Watch management theorist Simon Sinek talk about, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.” It’s a powerful shift in how to lead.

8. You seek out mentors.

Smart people know they’ll never know everything. Mentors bring in new ideas, perspectives and knowledge. A caution from the blog, nonprofit hub: “Most successful mentoring relationships cannot be forced. … but every person you talk to, whether informally or through a partnership, benefits and can help spark the change that revolutionizes your community.”

9. You persevere.

You’re willing to keep talking it up because you know it’ll work. You don’t wilt like a flower when the going gets tough—or shuts the door on your blossoming idea.

“A very wise person once said that you can accomplish absolutely anything if you are willing to hear ‘no’ often enough. And when I recently looked through a lot of biographies of billionaire entrepreneurs like Warren Buffett and Elon Musk, that theme—the willingness to try to sell something seemingly outrageous to strangers and then do it again and again till it worked–came through over and over.”

-The Laid Back Leader

10. You get to the point.

No wishy-washy responses or thinking with you—you’re direct and honest. That doesn’t mean you berate others, but when the time comes to wake the troops, you inspire them to do better. Tips to do that:

  • You tell people exactly what you want them to do—“I need you to write this section of the grant proposal and email it to me by 10a tomorrow. Here are the high points to include.”
  • Share in the sacrifice—“We’ll get this database issue worked out together. And because we have to stay late tonight, dinner’s on me.”


11. You set accurate, attainable goals.

Minimally, do a 12-month action plan, broken down into six-month “chunks” of actionable activities. Think big idea to small tactics, or an outline of goals and steps to reach those goals. Keep in mind that sometimes a more accurate measure of success is developing goals that quantify activity, not dollars received or documented bequests. For a more in-depth read, check out “What You Need to Have a Successful Planned Giving Program.”

12. You truly believe it’s about helping others.

A planned gift enables people to leave a legacy about what they value long after they’re gone. It’s not about you; it’s about the pairing of a communal mission with an individual gift. It sounds overplayed but it’s true: When you lead with passion, conviction and dedication, the money will follow and goals will be met.

13. You know what you’re talking about, and the right way to talk about it.

You avoid jargon that makes you sound knowledgeable, but in everyday conversations will likely make their mind wander. Save the technical talk for when you’ve narrowed the gift choice and it’s time to execute the gift intention. In more emotion-driven, relatable terms, bequest becomes “gift in your will” and charitable gift annuity becomes a “gift that earns you income.”

14. You create a (working) legacy society.

You go above and beyond the blanket gestures of gratitude and create experiences for legacy donors. From the big gestures, like inviting them to special events as guests of honor or valued volunteers or sending birthday or anniversary greetings, to the simple gestures, like not rushing your conversations or looking distracted while talking with them. You know—and appreciate—genuine connection.

15. You say thank you. And mean it.

Never forget to do and say the simple, little things. It’ll set you apart. Part of your amazing skill set is that you know when to push out gift information and when to pull back to let the prospect take the reins. This “real” relationship-building approach often leads to more organic gift intentions and substantive, longer-term donor relationships.

LOOKING FOR MORE WAYS TO THANK YOUR DONORS? Utilizing short, authentic video is a sure-fire way to connect with donors, in a time when they need connection the most. To truly resonate with them, show a more genuine, human side of you and your organization. For even more ideas, check out these 3 tips on how to engage donors when face-to-face isn’t possible.

What habits have you integrated that enable you to thrive in every area of life? Any important ones we’ve left out? Please share in the comments section below.

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