At CWC, Jennifer Stitely to discuss advance planning of charitable gifts


Deborah Trefts
Staff writer

Planning ahead in most endeavors is generally wise, even if it isn’t easy. When it comes to philanthropic giving, planning is even more important and necessary, yet it does not need to be difficult.

Jennifer Stitely, associate vice president of advancement for the Institution, will explain why during her talk about “Charitable Giving” at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday at the Chautauqua Women’s Club House, as part of the weekly Chautauqua Speaks series.

The focal point of her presentation will be on the “importance of charitable planning in your estate.” She said she will help “people understand how, when, why; to demystify it.”

Although charitable planning can be “incredibly complex, it can also be very simple.”

When considering charitable donations, Stitely said working with development professionals – or professional fundraisers – in any organization is important. This will help ensure the gifts are used in the way donors want them to be used.

This is Stitely’s fifth season working in the Colonnade; she succeeded Chautauquan Dusty Nelson after his retirement in May 2019.

Born and raised in Maryland, Stitely is the daughter of a Methodist minister and an instructional assistant.

“I have loved planned gift giving and charitable giving,” Stitely said. “As long as I’ve been in fundraising, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Growing up in churches as a ‘PK’, preacher’s kid, I was always surrounded by adults. So many stories need to be captured, and planned giving – estate planning – is that chance. It’s the last chance to tell your story.”

At Towson State University, she leaned toward majoring in both English and voice, and ultimately chose music performance for voice.

Stitely said she recently found the biography that she’d written in fourth grade. “I was going to be a marketing director at Covent Garden (in London, England). I was big into musical theater and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and have always been an Anglophile.”

Knowing that she did not want a career in teaching, Stitely got a job selling listings for two of Philadelphia Magazine’s ancillary publications, Mid-Atlantic Weekends and Elegant Weddings.

“It gave me the opportunity to work downtown in a high-rise in a corporate environment and a very fast-paced job,” Stitely said.

Then, she got married and moved to the outskirts of Philadelphia, where she worked in sales as a leasing consultant for the apartment complex where she lived and “really enjoyed that work and the people.”

Moving back to Maryland, she accepted a position in event coordination and planning for the nonprofit Maryland State Bar Association.

“It was the first time I worked with boards,” Stitely said. “It was the role that gave me my first taste of leadership and pointed me in the direction of my career. … I really enjoyed it.” Among other responsibilities, she organized retreats and put together materials for board meetings.

“I left it because the Philadelphia apartment complex purchased a building in Maryland and asked me if I’d come back to them,” she said. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a good fit, and she became pregnant with her first son, so she didn’t dally there.

“My father gave me sage advice,” Stitely said. “He’d tried to convince me for a long time that I should go into fundraising. I ignored it. I liked event planning. Then the light bulb went off. ‘You know what, Dad, I should try this fundraising thing.’ ”

Starting from the bottom up, she took an administrative position working for the person at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson who was responsible for the annual fund and planned giving.

“I worked my way up to being an assistant special events coordinator,” Stitely said. “William was born in 2001, and I left there in 2003. I was taking fundraising courses at the time. One of my teachers was (Chautauquan) Julie Cox. I worked for her at Sheppard Pratt Health System, one of the premier mental health institutions in the country. It’s the hardest fundraising I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

According to Stitely, SPHS had a good endowment and its original buildings were “lovely and incredibly well-built.” There had been a small building campaign in the 1970s, but this was the first time that they were planning to construct new rooms for mental health patients.

“This is critical work,” Stitely said. “One of the backlashes is that it’s private. Sheppard Pratt is where occupational health was founded, and Zelda Fitzgerald was treated.”

It was necessary to pay particular attention to every aspect of each room, including fixtures such as door handles, showers, and shower heads. Stitely said that she and the rest of the staff went into a sample room to test it out for patient safety.

Since the GBMC and Sheppard Pratt campuses are next-door neighbors, and they have a partnership with her alma mater, Towson State, this was a good fit for Stitely. She said she worked for Cox at SPHS for three years, until the new building opened.

When the opportunity arose for Stitely to reduce her commute and spend more time at home with her children, she said she “went from the hardest to the easiest fundraising job.” 

As the director of development for Carroll Hospice, she reported directly to Carroll Hospital Center and oversaw all hospice fundraising. She “helped build the inpatient facility from the ground up.”

After about two years, the hospital asked her to serve in a blended role as its director of major and planned gifts.

“Then I was raising money for both entities, the hospital and hospice,” Stitely said. “… I loved it. I had more leadership responsibilities. My last role was as director of philanthropic planning and legislative affairs. The legislative affairs role was added because a staff member had left, and we divided up her roles.

“I had been dealing with the state legislature,” she said. “If someone wants to give you more responsibility, say ‘Yes!’ ”

Meanwhile, Stitely continued taking courses and exams, and in 2010 earned her Certified Fundraising Executive designation.

In 2015, she was appointed as the divisional director of planned giving for the National Capitol and Virginia division of The Salvation Army.

“I took that because I was able to lead a team of three … Deborah Williamson worked for me there and is at Chautauqua now (as major gifts and planned giving officer). The Salvation Army is a far more sophisticated program than a community hospital. It opened up doors for more complex gift-giving. When it’s done right, it gives the donor so much more flexibility to accomplish their goals.”

Just shy of her five-year anniversary there, Chautauqua hired Stitely as its director of gift planning in 2019, and promoted her to her current role – in other words, of the direct solicitation of gifts within Chautauqua Institution’s fundraising department – in 2021.

“In 2019, I had to keep my head above water,” she said. “I was so excited for the 2020 season. Then COVID hit. … So much for those plans! I came up for three weeks during the summer of 2020 and had donor visits. We sat on cottage porches, six feet apart.”

With the exception of that season, Stitely has traveled from the D.C. area each June during “Week Zero” to work and live on the grounds through “Week 10,” the week immediately following the season’s end. During the off-season, she has been based in Chautauqua’s Washington, D.C. office, working from there and from her home in Maryland.

“I lead a team of fundraisers and donor relations professionals,” Stitely said. “I have a great team. They’re some of the best people I’ve worked with.”

Chautauqua’s “best fundraising year ever for planned giving” – which was also a career highlight for Stitely – was in 2021, when her team secured $17,000 to $18,000 in commitments. She was designated a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy the same year.

During 2022, with three fewer fundraisers in key positions on her team, she said she was “challenged in a different way … (yet her small) team worked beautifully together.”

A board member of the National Capital Gift Planning Council, Stitely chaired its 2022 Planned Giving Days Conference. She is also a member of the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners and Advisors in Philanthropy. And for three years, she served as president of the board of Chesapeake Planned Giving Council.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Stitely continued. “(I’ll be) there to help people answer the questions that they won’t be there to ask. … (They) get to be really thoughtful about how (they) want those funds to be used.”


The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.