For more than four decades Pentera has set the standard for innovative planned giving marketing solutions and top-quality customer service, serving thousands of charities, hospitals, and educational institutions throughout the United States.
André R. Donikian, JD, began working in planned giving in the mid-60s and founded Pentera in 1975. Since 2010 the company has been directed by President/CEO & CMO Claudine A. Donikian, JD, MBA, who led Pentera into the digital age. Pentera is headquartered in Indianapolis with offices in Boston and New York.
"Thanks to my father's vision, we have always been the best because we never got caught up in being the biggest, which would compromise our quality," Claudine says. "My father built Pentera based really on two simple key components, both of which I learned about in parking lots. I remember being in the grocery store parking lot with my dad when I was about 12 years old. The bag boy was taking our groceries out to the car for us, and my father turned to me and asked, 'Claudine, do you know what makes a business successful? Service, service, service.' Then when I was much older and all but running the business, I found myself again in a parking lot with my dad, and I mentioned a concern about some questionable changes I was seeing in the industry. And my father turned to me and said, 'Claudine, this company serves a higher purpose. Don't ever forget that.'
"From those two parking-lot moments our two guiding principles were passed down to me: service and integrity. We have a wonderful and earnest team that shows up to work every day and is completely dedicated to serving our clients with integrity. So we have André to thank for creating those guiding principles, but our team gets all the credit for implementing them."
André Donikian was one of the first attorneys to realize the charitable implication of the Tax Reform Act of 1969
A unique ability to understand and explain how tax laws present opportunities for planned gifts led to the founding of Pentera. Company founder André Donikian was among the first to realize the charitable implications of the Tax Reform Act of 1969 that included charitable remainder trusts and pooled income funds. As a young attorney he began developing gift planning materials and training programs that became the template and benchmark for promoting and educating about planned giving nationwide.
"One of the best things that ever happened to me was the Tax Reform Act of 1969," André recalls of his early years working for a company in Albany, New York, that then moved to Indianapolis. "The math of deferred gifts was an incredibly technical area that no one knew much about. We put on these 5-day seminars where all we did was teach people how to do the math and the interpolation."
That math now is done at the touch of a computer key, of course. But Pentera still offers seminars, though quite different in content, one in Indianapolis for professionals who are relatively new to planned giving and another in Saratoga Springs, New York, for those with five or more years of experience. Both are considered the best of their kind. The typical faculty for the seminars reads like a who's who of the profession, including Frank Minton, Emil Kallina, Jon Heintzelman, Don Kent, Pete Ticconi, Joe Buck, Pamela Davidson, Bob Coffman, and André and Claudine.
Founded in 1975, Pentera builds its reputation on the quality of its content and training seminars
In 1975 (official founding date Sept. 1) André and four others decided to form their own company; the five of them named it Pentera. Initial clients were the insurance industry and banks, then hospitals and colleges. "We had no office at first; I would go to the gardens of the museum and work from there," André says.
The following year, 1976, there was a new tax reform act that dramatically changed gift and estate taxes, and Pentera's materials and seminars to explain the impacts were quickly in high demand, particularly among colleges. The same thing happened in 1986, when Pentera led the helm in explaining the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax) to the nascent industry.
"Every time there was another tax reform, we had to change everything for our clients," André recalls. "I loved it. I would stay in the office until four in the morning."
The founders split the company in 1984, with the part of the business that trained insurance agents going one direction and the planned giving part of the business going in a different direction under André's leadership and under the name Pentera, Inc. - with a mission of providing the nonprofit community highly customized marketing materials, very personal customer service, and total devotion to integrity and high-quality training seminars and writing.
"One reason Pentera has been so successful over the years is the quality of the writing," says Jon Heintzelman, who has directed planned giving programs at Northwestern University and Loyola University Chicago. "It can be pretty boring and dry and dull talking about taxes and the various kinds of gift instruments. Pentera has been the best in the business in being able to engage people in material that doesn't lend itself very well to engagement."
Superior customer service helps build the client base
From its first nonprofit client, Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Indiana, Pentera quickly added dozens of hospitals and universities, including many of the nation's elite colleges. The contract renewal rate has been extraordinarily high, partly because of the customer service like no other: André, and later Claudine, would make driving trips to visit clients; when clients came to Indianapolis, André would cook them dinner at his house.
"I loved my clients and my clients loved me," says the retired founder, a sentiment that continues with Claudine and her staff.
"I have seen over and over again how many clients really become very close personal friends of folks at Pentera," says Bob Coffman, vice president for advancement at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana, and on the Pentera staff as a legal expert and writer.
In 1986 André was conducting a seminar in Indianapolis for planned giving professionals from Indiana's independent colleges, using the Socratic teaching method for which he is renowned. He asked a question that went unanswered ... until a young administrative assistant for the college association who was there to hand out binders spoke up from the back of the room - with the correct answer. Within a few weeks Pentera hired Nancy Maraldo, CFP, who has been with the company for 30 years and is vice president for client services. "I reached out to Nancy to join Pentera because she is so smart!" André says.
"When Senior Vice President Molly Donikian called me to come in for an interview, I was very flattered because Pentera had a wonderful reputation - but I was hesitant to change jobs because my husband and I were hoping to start a family soon," Nancy recalls. "When I mentioned my concern to Pentera and they asked if my present employer would let me bring the baby to work and stay in my office, as Pentera would, I was completely taken by surprise. Pentera was and remains ahead of the times when it comes to focusing on the family. In actuality, Pentera is one big family - our staff and their families, and our valued clients."
Claudine says that "clients love Nancy because she's so personable and extremely organized and attentive to detail. She also knows planned giving and can talk shop with the most seasoned planned giving professionals. She remembers not just the details of client projects, but also details of their lives - like whether they have children, how old they are, and often even their names. Nancy puts the personal into personal customer service and helps set the tone for all our client relationships. Nancy is both an integral part of Pentera, past and present, as well as a part of our family."
And the tradition of treating employees like family continues, with Senior Graphic Designer Kathy Baugh's infant daughter Hazel a recent fixture at the office.
Pentera is the first to comprehensively train colleges in planned giving, thanks to a Lilly grant
In 1989 the Lilly Endowment contracted with André to expand his college seminars and act as gift planning counsel to all of the independent colleges of Indiana (through the Independent Colleges of Indiana Foundation); to train and educate their development staff, board members, and key volunteers; and to conduct numerous seminars for prospects and donors. It was the first such training ever provided, and the contract was renewed twice for a total of three rounds of the program - highly unusual for Lilly, which typically funds just one round of a program.
"Those were really, really important sessions for the higher education community," says Bob Coffman, who attended for Anderson University. "The Lilly Endowment could make direct grants to institutions, but one of the best things they could do was help institutions increase their own ability to raise money - and to be more financially secure that way. An incredible camaraderie developed among the schools because of those sessions. We looked forward to learning and to developing the personal relationships. We felt so fortunate to be in Indiana when that was taking place. I don't think anything like that went on anywhere else in the country."
André was the first to discuss gifts of retirement funds and contributions of company stock from retirement funds
Much emphasis in planned giving is now on gifts involving retirement funds. In the early '90s, however, André was the very first to discover and discuss the tax cost of passing retirement funds to heirs and the advantages of making charitable gifts with them. A few years later he called attention to the advantages of contributing distributions of company stock from retirement funds.
In 1999 Pentera was the first to offer donors a tool to do life stage planning with the innovative Life Stage Gift Planner™ that is available on client Web sites.
New president & CEO leads Pentera into the digital age
Claudine Donikian graduated from law school and business school in 2001 and began working full-time at the company, initially in sales.
"I was learning about the company and the industry, going to conferences, and I was seeing that just like any company we needed to innovate and change or we were headed for trouble," Claudine says. "In 2001 NCPG (the National Committee on Planned Giving, now the Partnership for Philanthropic Planning, or PPP) reported that their research found we were clearly the No. 1 marketing firm among the top institutions. Pentera was running just fine but also needed to aggressively change to accommodate the new demands of the industry in order to remain the number one boutique marketing firm - which we as a team have done quite successfully."
Claudine began running the company in 2008 and was formally named president & CEO in 2010. She created a sales department, developed new procedures for other departments, revamped the Web department from top to bottom, and increased the number of Web clients by 600 percent. Pentera also changed the newsletter industry during this time period with the Pentera Pleat™, a novel way of folding newsletters to keep postal costs down that was developed by Nancy Maraldo.
"By 2011, 95 percent of our clients were Web clients and using our integrated print, e-mail, and Web strategies," Nancy says. "Claudine also began developing new marketing strategies and content strategies - with an emphasis on digital marketing - which have garnered our clients unprecedented results."
André says that "Claudine has really taken Pentera to another level that was beyond me."
"She just took it and ran with it," he says. "She is really forward-thinking, and she is also very organized. That's an unusual combination. She can envision needed results and lay out the necessary steps to achieve them."
Claudine presents at national conferences and regional seminars on the planned giving and AFP circuits and has developed her own national reputation as one of the foremost experts in planned giving marketing. She has served on the Direct Marketing Association's Digital Innovation Committee. In 2013 she was appointed to the advisory board for the prestigious Women's Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. In 2014 Claudine was elected to the board of directors of PPP, the national professional organization.
Claudine funds ground-breaking research on planned giving
One of Claudine's most recent innovative initiatives is funding a ground-breaking research study being conducted by the Lilly School.
"In 2011 I realized that there was virtually no research about the behaviors of actual donors who had made actual gifts," she says. "There is all sorts of data and surveys of a general population and what might motivate them to make a planned gift. But I don't believe that is helpful to our industry. Our clients aren't soliciting a general population for planned gifts, and consequently this population will likely never make a planned gift. Our clients are soliciting a very small segment of the general population that have very specific profiles: they are loyal members or alums who are likely 60 or older, educated, and wealthy. So how does it help our clients to study the motivations of anybody that doesn't fit these criteria? It doesn't. The study I commissioned is looking at actual donors who made actual gifts and are likely tracked by the organization: legacy society members."
She has presented findings from Volume 1 of the multi-phase study to enthusiastic crowds at the National Conference on Philanthropic Planning and around the nation.
Thankful to our clients
In 2015 Pentera celebrated its 40th anniversary with a year-long event that focused on clients. André and Claudine both talk about how honored they feel to work in planned giving and how grateful they are to Pentera clients.
"It's an honor and privilege to work in this field," Claudine says. "I'm so thankful to our clients for their trust and loyalty."