For some nonprofits, starting to ask for planned gifts may seem like a big leap. After all, many fundraisers are afraid to ask for a gift in general. So, how are they going to ask a donor to give to a cause after their death?
But it’s vital that fundraisers make that specific ask. A planned gift can be the largest donation they make to your organization. And those donors might not be where you’d expect to see them. Sure, they could be in your major gifts file, but often, they are your most loyal supporters. In fact, they could be giving in $25 increments to your organization right now.
Gregory M. Wilson, CAP, CFRE and director of client services, and Colleen Bowman, marketing director, both of Planned Giving Marketing, shared their planned giving strategies in a session titled “Stick Figure Planned Giving” at the Bridge Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, last week.
“As much as you always hear, ‘Oh my gosh, planned giving is so complicated. It’s so crazy,’” Wilson said, “I realized that really you can build your entire planned giving program around the basic figure of a stick figure, which is my level of artistic ability.”
In order to make sure those loyal donors leave your nonprofit a gift in their wills, Wilson and Bowman shared four steps to build a legacy society — based on a stick figure sketch.
1. Build a Planned Giving Strategy (aka the Head)
Think about all you can accomplish with planned giving. Yes, your time and organization’s budget play a factor, but being consistent with what you can accomplish is key. Start small, but have a plan that lets your donors know they can leave your organization a gift in their wills, or even designate retirement IRA accounts or stock investments to your organization after they pass away.
And no donor is really off-limits, but looking at donors who are loyal, single and never married, widowed or do not have any children tend to have the best outcomes.
“You always want to look at your loyal donors first,” Wilson said. “There are some statistics out there that show that after seven years of consecutive giving, the proclivity to make a planned gift increases and then after 15 years of consecutive giving … it actually jumps by 60% of somebody being interested in including your organization in their will.”
2. Create a Legacy Society (aka the Body)
This is the heart of your program. It doesn’t have to be complicated though. Be creative and find something with which donors can identify.
“I was at a higher ed institution where we were restarting a lot of their fundraising programs,” Wilson said. “And we literally looked for the year the college was founded and said, ‘OK, this is now the 1893 Society. Let’s get it out there. Let’s get it going.’”
It's essential to show the donor what the organization is going to do with the gift through marketing materials or by inviting them to programmatic events so they can see firsthand.
“Donors are making a huge leap of faith here,” Wilson said. “They’re typically leaving you with the largest gift they’ve ever made. And honestly they’re not going to be around to check in on you and make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Additionally, cultivating prospective planned giving donors can even give a boost to annual dollars as well. Once people get that reassurance, they’ll want to see the impact of what their gifts can achieve now as well.
“I always talk about it as a circular train track, and a donor can get on at any station — whether it’s planned gifts, major gifts or the annual find — and you can keep circling them around in a good way,” Wilson said. “And as long as you’re reaffirming what they’re doing, you’re showing them the impact and you’re reassuring them that they made the right choice. They typically keep cycling more and more over time.”
3. Develop a Marketing Plan for Your Legacy Society (aka the Legs)
To build a strong program, you need to build trust with regular and consistent communication. Promote your donors as heroes in your copy and include testimonials so they know “people like me make gifts like this,” Wilson and Bowman repeated throughout their presentation.
Try adding a headshot of the fundraiser to your organization’s direct mail, emails and even website. That way, there is a face instead of just a name. However, do not direct donors to a typical “contact us” form on your website.
“People see planned giving as a child,” Wilson said. “I would never just fill out one of those online forms to have someone take care of one of my kids. … We’re asking them to make this commitment that’s above and beyond anything else they’ve ever done and we’re saying ‘Oh, when you’re ready to talk to us, just fill out this form first.’”
4. Commence Outreach About Your Legacy Society (aka the Arms)
To pull donors into your legacy society, make calls, send emails and meet donors in person. All it takes is a cue, like “I wish I could do more …”, to signal a fundraiser to bring up the nonprofit’s legacy society.
But once someone has made the commitment, keep them in your legacy society. Wilson shared a time when he was a frontline fundraiser and a donor in his organization’s legacy society kept apologizing because there would be nothing left for the organization after she passed away, but the organization learned otherwise after her death.
“We received a gift from her estate of $3.2 million that started an innovation fund at our organization, so it was just pretty mind-blowing,” he said.
Unlike other asks though, planned giving donations will not be on your timeline. There is no set date or campaign timeframe to push. As Wilson described, you’re asking donors to do two things no one wants to do:
- Talk about their own death
- Talk to their lawyer to change their will
Age matters in this process, but this is also a long-term vision, so balance older and younger donors based on your organization needs. For example, millennial and Gen Z donors in your legacy society could become lifetime supporters — and even future board of trustee members and committed volunteers, Wilson said. On the other hand, the greatest wealth transfer is around the corner, so it’s not time to lose sight of baby boomers yet.
“Because eventually, over the next 10 to 15 years, all of that money is going to have to go somewhere,” Bowman said. “Why not have it funnel through to your organization?”
“Right now there are 20 million less Gen Xers than there are baby boomers still alive,” Wilson added. “So this great wealth transfer that Colleen mentioned, it’s literally this cliff that we’re all running toward and then it just drops. Then that’s it. You literally have to wait until millennials cycle up as far as donors go.”