Meet the CEO

Viken Mikaelian

Interview by Patrick O’Donnell, Assistant Editor, Giving Tomorrow Magazine and Major Gifts Today.

How did you get into the planned giving business?

Like most people in the planned giving industry, it was purely accidental. At the time, I had become friends with the Director of Planned Giving at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater). As an attorney himself, he admitted that most fundraisers in the industry had difficulty simplifying planned giving. He also gave me the ins and outs of every other vendor (Pentera, Stelter, etc.). Both our conclusions were that there had to be a better solution. And it being only three years after Yahoo was born, it was time to Bring Planned Giving to the Internet, which was also our slogan. Our firm at the beginning was called VirtualGiving.

Our new slogan is, Planned Gifts Can Get Complicated. Marketing Them Shouldn’t Be.

In a nutshell, why is planned giving important?

Watch this video below. We give permission for nonprofits to use it. Just embed it on your website and make sure to give us credit.

What’s your life philosophy?

To improve myself every day so I can help improve others.

Why Choose Us?

Our focus has always been finding innovative ways to market planned gifts. We started in 1999 and were the first to bring planned giving to the internet. We created a brand-new product that worked well and was quickly in demand among leading nonprofits. Their response was very motivating. What was even more exciting was that other vendors discovered that they could do the same. Before long, they all sat up, took notice, and started to copy us. They’re still copying our innovations today—and that’s OK, because in the end, it benefits the nonprofit industry we all serve. (Plus, isn’t “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?)

What was your first job?

When I was 8, I bought a lawn mower. You can guess the rest.

How about your first business?

I was a childhood candy prodigy. During Halloween I circled the neighborhood five times with 5 different masks which I bought with the proceeds from cutting lawns … and sold my excess inventory to my 3rd grade classmates over the next 6 months..

What remains on your bucket list?

Visit every state in the USA and every major National Park, help more nonprofits, and possibly buying or adopting another Yorkie.

Who is your favorite author?

Too many to list. I read a book a week and there is something to be learned from every book you read.

How about your favorite movie?

Too many to list, but “Being There” with Peter Sellers is up there.

Do you have a favorite comedian?

Ah! Of course. Bob Hope, Fluffy, Peter Sellers, George Carlin, Monty Python. Quite a few more as I love to laugh. In fact, I listen to comedy on my iPad every night before I sleep – that way I wake up laughing to start a wonderful new day.

Did you have challenges when you started this business?

Big time. It was not an easy task, because the industry was not ready to get planned giving online. In those first few years, I recall earning less than $7,000 annually. My wife Olga’s income from her job enabled us to pay the bills.

What made it even tougher was an industry without a vision proclaiming, across the nation, “You can’t get your vision, your mission, and your planned giving message across on a website.” Most fundraisers I encountered were against having a planned giving website.

Did you have other sources of income?

No. From the beginning it was a “pure play” firm.

Pure play?

A “pure play” is a company that focuses solely on one type of product or service. Other vendors, for example, began as print shops seeking new avenues to keep their presses running to churn out newsletters. Others began as planned giving software companies (calculators) and added planned giving content for added revenue.

How do you measure success?

Through feedback I receive from clients and friends who tell me I have made them more successful.

Would you consider yourself very productive?

I would like to think so. I wrote a book on time management, and I try to follow it. It is not easy.

What comes first in your business?

My employees. Treat them right, and they will treat clients right.

Dogs or cats?

Dogs. My Chief Barketing and Communications officer is my pup, Chloe. (See her on LinkedIn.)

What’s a major challenge for nonprofits when it comes to planned giving?

Most fundraisers want to hit the jackpot with a large donation, and therefore procrastinate when it comes to planned gifts.

What about the most common mistakes fundraisers make?

They focus on the technical aspects of planned gifts and not the people or relationship side. I think planned giving is 95% a people business and 5% a legal business. You can always outsource the legal stuff.

Where should a good fundraiser dedicate their time?

Calling, writing thank-you letters, and getting out the door meeting with donors. You can’t close a huge gift on Zoom. At least not yet. But we may be getting there.

Should there always be an “ask?”

In every marketing piece you put out, there should always be a direct or indirect ask. Over 56% of fundraisers in a recent survey preferred not to make such an ask. Big mistake.

You lead a successful planned giving marketing firm. Why is marketing so important?

Marketing is used to successfully educate your donors. You can’t make the ask unless you have educated them first.

What’s the future of planned giving?

The future is exciting: Because of tremendous demographic shifts in society, you have to watch our webinar on the Great Wealth Transfer. That’s going to make a huge impact on philanthropy.

Viken Mikaelian

Viken Mikaelian

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