Up Close and Personal with Viken Mikaelian

Viken Mikaelian Q&A

Viken Mikaelian is the CEO of PlannedGiving.com and Publisher of Giving Tomorrow Magazine.

Interviewed by Karen Martin and Patrick O'Donnell, Editors, Giving Tomorrow Magazine.

Viken’s firm began creating planned giving websites back in December 1998, when his company was called “Virtualgiving.com.” He may have been ahead of the curve. Many scoffed, claiming “planned giving will never get online!” Who could blame them? They couldn’t foresee the 21st century reality we live in now, and the planned giving world has always been slow to move. Viken made sure they caught up. Over the last quarter-century PlannedGiving.com has delivered thousands of planned giving websites for nonprofits both large and small. The firm has expanded to offer just about any marketing product a fundraiser could dream up. We interviewed Viken to hear about the lessons he’s learned in 25 years of planned giving marketing.

Q

How did your work pave the way for planned giving to move online?

A

Most people in the industry laughed when they heard my idea for planned giving websites. But most people also scoffed at the idea of buying groceries and eyeglasses online, and online dating. Now look how far we’ve come. In fact, I met my wife online 24 years ago. After my company proved planned giving could go online, all other vendors followed.

Q

So you were the first. How has planned giving marketing changed since then?

A

On the positive side, more and more nonprofits are realizing the importance of planned giving. On the negative, 98 percent are still not doing anything about it.  In fact, only 1% of 1.8 million nonprofits take planned giving seriously. By seriously, I mean they actually do something about it. Like taking action.

Q

Why is that?

A

First, I’ll tell you the reason we hear, then I’ll tell you the real reason. I’ve surveyed thousands of industry leaders, and their answers are always the same: lack of time and lack of budget. But I don’t believe that. It’s human nature to put off things that do not have immediate benefits. This is why we end up needing root canals, figuratively speaking, because we didn’t take care of the root problem before. Planned giving is a proactive endeavor. And in planned giving, as in any other career, the few who prioritize things with long-term benefits are the most successful and are in the highest income brackets. I’d say the top two percent. Perhaps top 1 percent. Those forward-thinking people are our clients. This goes across all industries — from sports to music and business. Not being proactive is one reason why 80 percent of new businesses fail within two years.

Q

Are you saying that people who prioritize planned giving are more successful?

A

Absolutely. People who pursue planned gifts don’t just do long-term good for the organization — they also enjoy personal success. They get promotions and raises, and generally have more lucrative, successful careers. Research shows fundraisers who even have a minor focus on planned giving earn 50-100 percent more than those who do not. And in fact, those who do not will have a tough time maintaining a rewarding career.

Q

Tell us about a time you saw someone get it right. 

A

Oh my goodness. There are so many! Our clients are ambitious and creative and good with people, and they’re always telling me the best stories. One that comes to mind is the story of “The Little Librarian Who Carried a Big Philanthropic Stick,” which comes to me from my friend Gary Bukowski, Associate VP of Development at Sarah A. Reed Children’s Center. Gary used to work in development at a small private college in Pennsylvania, and he had built a relationship with a donor who happened to be a librarian at another private school a few states over, called Yale University. Undeterred by her connection to Yale, Gary asked her to consider leaving some of the proceeds from her TIAA CREF retirement fund to the college where he worked. She did—and eight years later that little librarian’s gift had turned into $750,000. As far as we know, she did not leave any sort of planned gift to Yale. A few things I love about this story: 

  1. The relationships. Like many of my clients, Gary is a champion of relationships. He sees people for who they are; he stays in touch for years and years; and he listens well to know what people are passionate about so he can connect them with causes that will be meaningful.  
  2. No fear. Gary wasn’t afraid to make the ask—even though he was asking an employee of Yale for a generous gift to another school!
  3. The gift itself. Gifts of retirement assets are among the simplest of all planned gifts, and they have the potential to be much greater than either the gift planner or the donor anticipated. 

Q

What’s something surprising you’ve learned in your career?

A

I have always talked about how planned giving is “philanthropy for the rest of us.” It’s not the uber-wealthy making planned gifts; it’s ordinary people. This is something I knew — or should have known — but it didn’t really hit home until I saw it play out in my own family. My father was a well-respected surgeon. He was widely published in peer-reviewed medical journals. He spoke four languages. In summary, he was a brilliant, hard-working, successful doctor. And yet, when he passed away, he had no estate plan and created a challenge for my family to deal with. In comparison, my wife’s mother was taken out of school in third grade because at that time, in her culture, “only boys should be educated.” And yet this incredible woman, who grew up in a developing nation, with no formal education, was still smart enough to leave an organized estate for her next generation.

Q

What are the most common mistakes fundraisers make in planned giving?

A

Number 1: not doing it. Many talk about it, call us, they are extremely excited and psyched, then everything fizzles out and do not follow through. Number 2: not shifting from four-letter acronyms like CRATs and CRUTs to four-letter words like LIVE, LIFE, LOVE. Many focus on the technical aspects of planned gifts and not the people or relationship side. Planned giving is a people business, not a legal business. You can always outsource the legal. Number 3: Not putting a direct or indirect ask in every single marketing piece you put out. In a survey we did, half said they prefer not to make such an ask. Others simply forgot. Big mistake on both occasions.

Q

What’s your opinion of online will planners?

A

They are just another tool, and they are all the same, including the LegacyPlanner™ — the one we offer. And how well they work depends how well you work them. It’s all about marketing. Unfortunately, many have been duped into thinking such tools are a silver bullet, where one can lay back and see bequests rolling in. That’s not how they work. Life does not have silver bullets except in Hollywood.

Q

Wow, I thought you’d jump on that opportunity and try to make a sales pitch!  So who is your biggest competition?

A

All of us vendors have our own following. My main competitor is human nature. Like I said earlier, it’s common for fundraisers to put off planned giving and it takes a while until they realize procrastination is their main enemy.  Competition can come from indirect and unexpected sources. Look at Pepsi. Most would say their main competition is Coke. But one can argue it can also be the anti-sugar movement, the clean water acts being passed, public schools preventing soda on campus. In philanthropy, competition is the donor’s lifestyle and the media. They fall in love with your organization, make a commitment, and then forget all about it when they get home. Remember, in a major city, one is inundated with over 4,000 marketing messages a day. The donor loves you, but you are not a priority in her life. You need to repeat your message and focus on stewardship.

Q

You really do think like a marketer. What do you foresee for the future of planned giving?

A

The next 5–10 years will be hot! I can’t predict after that. The tremendous demographic shifts in society are going to make a huge impact on philanthropy. Fundraisers who have been doing the important work of building relationships with donors are in for a thrilling time. I learned a lot about this from the late Robert Sharpe. My advice: act now. Fast.

Q

Okay … a few personal questions here. First, favorite top three cities you would live in the US.

A

Tampa, Reno, San Diego. I am in Tampa now — love the open waters and people. Reno, love the mountains and Lake Tahoe. Besides, I have family there. San Diego — who doesn’t like Southern California?

Q

What time do you wake up and how long do you work?

A

5 AM wake-up. 5:20 Coffee. 12 hours is a short workday. I start reading in the park. Remember, it’s warm here.

Q

What is the biggest hurdle in career advancement in our community?

A

Anyone can advance their career easily by working hard. But if you want to go beyond the 2% to 4% raises you beg for annually, you need hard work outside your comfort zone. CEOs and board members can see this. Most average employees do not but this type of talent can be cultivated or developed through personal development.

Q

Favorite adult beverage.

A

A good Single Malt Scotch with a touch of Campari.

Q

Favorite car?

A

Porsche. Well-built and well designed. Over 71 percent of them ever built are on the road today. Now that’s quality control and that’s how I like to run my company.

Q

Have one?

A

Not yet.

Q

Dog or a cat?

A

Dog, and mine is a Yorkie. But I welcome the neighbor’s cat.

Q

What’s your biggest business success?

A

Acquiring the domains plannedgiving.com and majorgifts.com. When you get 2.32+ million nonprofits, consulting firms, financial advisors, and marketing vendors to use the online names that we own, that’s what I call business success. And it’s a great benefit to the nonprofits that use our planned giving websites, because of the SEO pull the domain names already carry.

Q

Sounds like bragging rights.

A

Others may practice planned giving marketing. We define it.

Q

What was your first business success?

A

When I was eight I bought a lawn mower and started cutting grass to earn money. A year later at Halloween I used my proceeds to buy five different masks. Then I circled the neighborhood five times with a different mask each time and got five times more candy than I needed. I sold my excess inventory to my third-grade classmates over the next six weeks. Did the neighbors notice it? Of course! My accent gave me away, but they let me slide. This was in Towson, MD, a very small town back then. Boy do I miss those years.

Q

Do you have a will in place?

A

Yes. And long before I had open heart surgery. Do you?

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