The Financial Services Industry: Paul Bunyan or Goliath?

by K. Gene Christian
Download the Planned Giving Today article
January 2001
Volume XII, Number 1

It has been a storybook time in the field of planned giving. The meadows have been green, the hillsides covered with flowers, and the rivers flowing clear, cold and deep. It truly has been a land filled with milk and honey. However, the sleeping giant has awakened and is roaming about the valley.

Like never before, financial services professionals have become aware of their opportunity to participate in this golden era of planned giving. As the nation ages, wealth builds and the overall combined effect of taxation remains relatively high, astute charitable organizations–and financial professionals alike–are grasping for the brass ring of planned giving.

Simply put, the allegorical question is: Are we (PGOs and the charities who employ us) going to adapt–and even facilitate the likelihood that the giant will awaken from his long sleep with breakfast, a warm cup of coffee, and the morning paper waiting at his bedside? Or will we do very little and get trampled underfoot by a grumpy behemoth?

As the giant fully awakens, we want him to be in a good mood. Why? Just take a moment to do this mental exercise. Theoretically compile the assets of every charitable organization in America. Then compare them to the aggregate worth of just a few smaller and mid-sized banks, investment firms and insurance companies in our country. If you’re honest, the next thought you should have will be sobering: It’s not our brass ring that is being taken, but quite the contrary!

Some PGOs, generally at higher profile/elite charitable institutions, have viewed the process of planned giving as a proprietary, centralized process. I’ve talked with many who have espoused this philosophy over the years. Certainly our collective thinking as PGOs has begun to shift more recently, and most are now willing to admit that we simply can’t keep warding off the financial services industry indefinitely. If we keep trying, we could become the figurative ants who get squashed underfoot as Goliath swings his feet out of bed.

To take the metaphor further, PGOs are like thousands of no-see-urns that have systematically and insidiously begun to crawl all over the giant during the last few years. The infestation has become so acute that it’s finally wresting him from his sleep. As he opens his eyes, do we want him to see a bunch of helpful little ladybugs scurrying about, or a swarm of no-see-ums biting him?

From Goliath to Paul Bunyan
In our organization, we’ve been anticipating this great awakening for quite some time. Our idea has been to help shape his thinking as the giant begins to take steps is his forest thick with the prospective donors–clients he deals with every day. Like the story of Paul Bunyan, our goal as smaller creatures much nearer the ground (right-minded PGOs) should be to help Paul maximize the efficiency and swing of his ax down through the forest so that many, many more large trees are deftly cut than we could ever do on our own.

Real Life
It’s incumbent upon every planned giving officer to foster an environment where the financial services industry can participate in appropriately formed, and managed, life-income agreements. How can that be done? Through endless e-mails, training sessions, special events, marketing material, written communications and so forth that we develop specifically with the financial services advisors in mind.

Virtually all financial services professionals want to serve their clients completely and at a high level. Many of our prospective donors sleep well at night knowing that their financial representatives have helped them grow and/or sustain their wealth. So, let’s be careful not to excoriate or turn our back on our financial services friends when poorly conceived charitable planning strategies are suggested. Let’s understand, too, that these gatekeepers manage money in order to make money. We should work to shape the climate–and the level of comprehension–in a way that is productive and fruitful for all.

Sure, the financial services industry has been “baby Huey” in a china shop at times. However, rather than be fearful about his awkwardness and what might get broken, we should remember that he’s a large kid who, once mature, could have a tremendous impact on those around him.

Praise to Officials
NCPG governmental affairs representatives have set a good course in my judgment. They’ve been quick to unearth and then firmly oppose poorly conceived quasi-charitable planning strategies. At the same time, they have chosen not to lambaste an entire industry for the indiscretions or neophyte thinking of a few.

To the government’s credit, it has responded likewise. At our recent NCPG conference in Orlando, people like Fran Schafer, Michael Bluenfeld and Tim Hanford demonstrated that they understand the overwhelming power, and potential, planned giving has to change the landscape of our society. Many of us were impressed by the balanced thinking and good sense of humor each of these individuals seems to possess related to the field of planned giving.

For such a large industry, it’s truly remarkable how few problems exist. That’s a testament to the many good and noble-minded people in the upper echelon of NCPG, and within our government, all working together to keep the high ideals of planned giving on a good course.

Final Thought
It’s a mighty big forest! If we work diligently to educate, support and include the financial services industry in this unique planning arena, we will have engaged the assistance of the fabled Paul Bunyan to help cut large, and appropriate, swaths through the trees. If not, PGOs may be reduced to repairing the damage done while the despised behemoth lumbers through the forest.

Gene Christian is regional director of charitable estate and gift planning services for Providence Health System Medical Foundations in Oregon.

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