Charles Schultz and I go back a long way. I remember my first training event with Charles, Artie, and Carol in a very small room in Camarillo, CA. Many years have passed, but I remember being impressed with Charles and his vision for planned giving software. He had lofty goals, and he has achieved them. Our industry has been changed by his vision, integrity, intelligence, and hard work.
Charles is the principal author of the Crescendo Planned Giving Software and the GiftLegacy Pro eMarketing System. He is also the editor for the GiftLaw.com charitable tax planning web site. Charles and his wife, Artie, have been married for 43 years. They have two married daughters and two grandchildren.
Last month Charles and I sat down for a conversation about values, careers, and Crescendo Interactive, Inc.
EDDIE: What are some of the values that have guided your career, and where did they come from?
CHARLES: Like most people, values were passed down from parent and grandparents. My maternal grandfather was a homesteader in 1905, settling in North Dakota just south of the Canadian border. Farm life in North Dakota demands a lot of resilience and fortitude, and both my grandparents definitely had that. I look back at their persistence and their unwavering commitment to do the right thing. That takes a lot of courage and consistency.
North Dakota is one of the states that has the highest number of people who start from very modest resources and end up with fairly significant success. Much of that relates to the ethic of education. Most of my aunts and uncles (seven out of eight) were college graduates, and three have graduate degrees. That tells you something about the importance my grandparents placed on higher education.
Both my parents were very active in the Lutheran Church, and so all the kids grew up as Lutherans. My father was an attorney in a small private practice for most of those years. For a time, he was the Executive Director of the local Bar Association.
So, hard work, education, and faith are some of values I learned and adopted from my parents and grandparents.
EDDIE: Talk about your own educational background.
CHARLES: My wife, Artie, and I attended the University of North Dakota. It’s a very fine institution, though not as large as some universities. After receiving my undergraduate degree in 1970, I spent four years flying jet fighters for the United States Air Force. In 1974 I transfer to the Michigan Air National Guard and entered law school at the University of Michigan. Artie and I were there for three and a half years. I completed the remaining two-years of my commitment to the Air National Guard flying out of Great Falls, Montana. I took the Bar exams in Montana and in North Dakota.
EDDIE: What was your first job outside of the Air Force or the Air Guard?
CHARLES: While I was still in the Reserves in Montana, I went back to North Dakota to practice law with my father in Denmark, ND. That was my first job after the military. In the week before we left Montana, I went on a trip to Colorado to visit a donor. We ended up helping that donor set up quite a large gift through an irrevocable trust. Within a week I knew that planned giving was where I was supposed to be. From there, we had the opportunity to go to St. Louis to go into the gift-planning world.
Changes in the uses of technology among the various demographic groups are more significant than the tax-law changes in terms of the overall marketing of planned giving.
EDDIE: Why did you start Crescendo?
CHARLES: After two years in St. Louis, I ended up going out to the coast with Gordon Caswell. We were planning for major donors and trustees of charities. I needed to be able to provide illustrations for donors with significant estates. I started out by writing software to create the illustrations. Within a few months, people began expressing interest in what I was doing. So, in April of 1984 we incorporated Crescendo as a C-Corporation, and in July of the same year we opened the doors.
Six brave souls came to our first seminar to be trained to use the first version of Crescendo. With a new software launch, typically you have the seminar during the day and then stay up half the night reprogramming, trying to make everything work. I quickly realized that software programmers first need to understand is that regular people think differently. After the first seminar, I went back and wrote the software for a user interface.
EDDIE: When you started Crescendo, what was your long-term goal?
CHARLES: When I started working with donors, initially I created long documents similar to the papers I wrote in law school. I soon discovered that approach failed badly with donors. I started with just a blank piece of paper and a black marker and started drawing little diagrams and pictures. I discovered that the visual component was a communications method that donors understood.
Even though computers were fairly new at the time, with only a few people owning their own PC, we wanted to create a program that would help gift planners to do their own deduction calculations. We also realized the benefits of using pictorial language with computer-generated graphics. We didn’t really know where that was going to lead.
Eventually, we moved from software that would simply crunch numbers to doing things that would effectively communicate with donors. Hewlett Packard came out with a printer that could produce nice little pictorials and two-colored flow charts. That was state-of-the-art back in the computer dark ages of the 1980s.
EDDIE: What has been your biggest surprise in your history with Crescendo?
CHARLES: There have been several surprises. First of all, I discovered that we had more good friends and supporters than I realized. That was true from early on and from all over the country. I remember in 1988 we had a seminar in Chicago where we reserved a hotel conference room. But room couldn’t fit everyone who showed up. A friend with the Salvation Army graciously allowed us to use their facility, which was only a couple miles away. We had 48 people at that seminar.
I think some of the most surprised were those attending the seminars. People were surprised at their own ability to quickly learn a new technology and what they could produced with it.
As I look back now, the biggest surprise has been the advances in technology. We could have never in our wildest imaginations foreseen the rapid pace of change. We’ve gone through about three significant technology changes in the field, and we’ve tried to come up with new systems to reflect each of those changes.
EDDIE: What do you see as the greatest challenge for Crescendo?
CHARLES: Getting the right people in the right place is always a huge challenge. We are fortunate in that we have been able to build some great teams. We now have a great I.T. team, a team of six attorneys, and a great design team. We’ve addressed a lot of challenges in the last several years. Because of those teams, we are seeing really good opportunities for the future. Our current challenge is to help the typical gift planner or major gift person at the mid- to large charities to be really effective as a marketer.
EDDIE: Who is going to lead Crescendo when you retire?
CHARLES: Kristen (Schultz) Jaarda is very talented and capable. The caution I share with her (and everyone in the area of technology) is that no one can predict where things will go in the future. So, the key is that we need to be flexible. All companies, especially technology companies, need to continually adapt to changes in the business environment. We may not know exactly what changes are coming, but we do know they are coming.
EDDIE: What has been the most profound lesson you have learned?
CHARLES: Probably the most profound lesson is the need and the willingness to change. By personality, I may not be the most change-oriented person, and as I get a little “more senior,” perhaps it will be a little more challenging.
Of course, we’ve seen changes in the economy and in the tax world. Those changes may be even more pronounced in the near or distant future. However, changes in the uses of technology among the various demographic groups are more significant than the tax-law changes in terms of the overall marketing of planned giving.
EDDIE: How do you want to be remembered?
CHARLES: I would hope that what we are doing has longevity and carries on in the field. I hope we can enable hundreds and even thousands of gift planners to really make a difference. I would like to see planned giving rise to a level that would come closer to 25% of non-profit annual income, even among small to medium sized organizations. And if gift planners and planned giving gain a higher degree of esteem among philanthropy circles…if we could get all that done, it would be a pretty good way to be remembered.
EDDIE: Charles, thank you, I appreciate your time today.
Eddie Thompson Ed.D.