In university, Doug Puffer watched a professor eat an earthworm. That’s when he fell in love with biology. Who knew it would turn into a career in planned giving?
Doug Puffer claims he was infected with the “biology bacteria” in his first year of university, but, he says, it took some time to manifest. When he left school to work for a while, he fully intended to return the following year and continue his studies. However, that year turned into another year. And another. As the age of 30 loomed on the horizon, Doug decided it was time to return to university. He sold his carpentry tools and enrolled at Western University (then the University of Western Ontario) as a mature student.
It was there, just three or four lectures into his first semester, the bug took hold. Speaking about life’s constant search for protein, one of Doug’s professors reached into a bucket, pulled out an earthworm, and ate it whole. “I thought, ‘I like this guy!’ I went to his office and told him I thought he could deliver. As a mature student, you have to have the temerity to get your money’s worth,” says Doug.
That professor’s simple action set Doug on a course to study biology. He also challenged Doug to develop an honour’s thesis on waterfowl migration, which led to summer and contract jobs with the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
In turn, this experience led to a full-time job up north. In 1984, Ducks Unlimited hired Doug to “set up shop” in Timmins. For two years, he worked as a habitat restoration biologist and conducted habitat inventories in northern Ontario. Eventually he and his wife Meg started a family, but Doug quickly found that his job, which involved being away in the bush for several days per week with a pair of dogs and a canoe, was not conducive to parenting.
Doug had tendered his resignation with Ducks Unlimited and was getting his family ready to move back to southern Ontario when his manager called. “He told me about a new opportunity and offered me a job in Kingston.” Doug took the position.
“That’s how and when I got into fundraising,” he says.
When he started his new job, Doug didn’t know much about fundraising. “My manager said he’d teach me what I needed to know – and that was that!” he says. “I quickly came to realize that fundraising involves connecting people with something they care about. At the time, Ducks Unlimited almost always hired biologists or people with a background in science to do its fundraising. It helped that we cared about the same thing as the organization’s members.”
Doug spent 15 years with Ducks Unlimited recruiting volunteers to help raise funds. “Not only was the cause near and dear to my heart, but working with volunteers in the evenings allowed me to spend the mornings with my family, which is very important to me,” he says. He also used some of these years to foster his interest in planned giving, taking several courses to build his skills and career options.
In early 1999, Doug left Ducks Unlimited to take a new position as a major gifts officer for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Queen’s University. Here, he started working on a campaign to raise $28 million for a new chemistry building. “Going from $1 million to $28 million was a bit of a jump for me,” he says. “I must admit, I was a little nervous taking on that challenge.”
When he realized it was simply a matter of scale, Doug thrived in his new position. “It could be a $10,000 gift for habitat restoration or a $10-million gift for a university – it’s all about connecting philanthropy to the mission. I’ve stayed focused on that understanding throughout my career and it has made my job very easy,” he says.
After two years in major gifts, Doug was invited to apply for a senior planned giving position at Queen’s. He jumped at the chance to put into practice what he’d been studying. “My personality is well-suited to planned giving,” he explains. “I like the technical aspects of planned giving – I like numbers – but I’m also interested in finding and learning about people. In this job, I often meet ordinary people who have lived below their means so that they can accomplish something extraordinary. They are often down to earth, humble people who are flying below the radar, and I get to help them feel comfortable about philanthropy.”
Doug left Queen’s in 2007 with fond memories of a great team of colleagues, including a mentor and friend in Ed Pearce, who, sadly, passed away suddenly in 2005. “Ed inspired people. He knew the difference between being a leader and a manager,” Doug says. “That was a style I really admired, and I’ve done my best to emulate ever since.”
As Doug started thinking about his next move, he got a call from fellow fundraiser Cathy Daminato who had attended one of his sessions at a recent conference. She told him that Simon Fraser University was looking for the school’s first-ever director of planned giving. She asked Doug to apply. He did, and he got the job, moving across the country to British Columbia in March 2007.
At SFU, Doug had the unique opportunity to build a planned giving program from the ground up. “It was a challenge, but it was well worth it,” he says. “You have to put a lot of faith into a planned giving program; it can take a long time to realize the gifts. Our team was focused on building the wealth of expectancies and encouraging people to leave gifts to the university in their wills.”
One could say Doug carries the same temerity he had as a student into his career. When he began this job in 2007, there was hardly any money in the coffer, he says. Nine years later, SFU’s planned giving program has more than $85 million in a pool of expectancies, and provides sophisticated, donor-centred support for the full range of legacy gift options in both Canada and the United States. “I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish there,” he says. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to have built the program at such a great school.”
Doug recently retired from SFU but took up the call again to lead the planned giving program at Carleton University, and is also part of the team at PGgrowth, a firm that helps charities connect with their donors and steward them for charitable giving through estate planning. He has been a mentor with the Greater Vancouver CAGP Roundtable, and is an active professional member of several organizations.
Making a career of planned giving, Doug says, has exceeded his expectations. “I’m a volunteer and board member with the Canadian Association of Gift Planners, and it’s been a pleasure to see the upswing in interest in planned giving. At our first conference, there wasn’t much diversity in the crowd. Now I look around the room and see a good mix of people – men, women, and a lot of younger people. That blows me away. To see younger fundraisers get into the field on purpose is a huge change.”
It’s also good to see the fundraising sector understand the importance of investment in planned giving, Doug says. “The industry is paying more attention to the years that it takes to build trust with donors. We still have a way to go. Too often, organizations focus on short term goals and year end performance with artificial budgets or annual targets that don’t fit with true philanthropy. When fundraisers work together with donors to keep that ultimate gift in mind, it makes all the difference.”
Doug Puffer: Three Pieces of Advice for New Fundraisers
- Stop looking for a new job. “If you’re in the business of philanthropy, it’s all about relationships. People who switch jobs all the time don’t get to follow and learn the donor cycle. I wouldn’t hire them. Try to stay at an organization until you’re sure you’ve made an impact.”
- Choose your job carefully. “Look seriously at the mission of the charity you’ve chosen to work with and ask ‘Is this me?’ The charitable sector needs qualified people who care.”
- Find a mentor. "It's easy to get lost in this sector! A mentor can help guide you. And, when you've gained some experience of your own, don't forget to return the favour and become a mentor to new fundraisers. There are some smart young people out there who want to make a difference."