No Time for Planned Giving? Try These Quick Ideas!

I’m as fired up as I can get about something big these days: planned giving.

I know, I know — you’ve heard it before. “Jump on planned giving,” the consultants say.

“I can’t,” you say back. “I don’t have the bandwidth.”

Okay, I get that.

But the returns on your investment of time and energy can be simply amazing!

That’s where the profit is, says my friend and mentor Penelope Burk.

Ironically, though, it always gets shoved to the bottom of the pile — after the fundraising events, mailing campaigns, sponsorships, grant applications,  you name it.

In spite of the great potential payoff, we never seem to get around to planned giving.


It’s so technical, all my friends say. We don’t know anything about it. And it’s a bit weird bringing up the subject.

I’m not buyin’.

Here’s the truth: I don’t know a lot about the technical end of planned giving either. And I don’t need to know it.

But I do know this: I know who the best planned giving prospects are. And I know  what to do with them.

And that’s all YOU need to know too.

So here’s a quick and dirty plan you can implement right now. And I can’t imagine a greater return on your effort!

1. Identify Your Best Prospects

Your best prospects are — no surprise here –  your most loyal donors over time.They are the most consistent, most non-demanding, perhaps the most silent donors you have.

If you have someone who’s giving your organization $25 for 20 or 20 years straight, you can bet that your cause is in their will.

In fact, many surprise estate gifts come in from those small donors who are ignored by the development staff in favor of bigger donors.

And it’s the long term donor who will leave a major gift as a legacy.

As Target Analytics says, “Loyal giving behavior frequently trumps gift size as a predictor of planned giving.”

2. Communicate With Them Annually.

Simply communicate with your most loyal donors at least once a year, reminding them about estate gifts. “You can leave your legacy to our cause.”

I’m actually not even sure about the word “legacy.”

Don’t by all means, remind them of their mortality with things like “when you’re gone,” which is dismal and a downer, says communications guru Tom Ahern.

3. Ditch the Jargon.

In your annual letter to your most loving and loyal donors, pitch something called “estate gifts,” not “planned giving.”

People – your donors – don’t know what we mean by “planned giving.”

Don’t throw jargon at them! Throw the words “estate gift,” “leave a bequest.”

4. Add Estate Gift Language to All Your Communications.

Put it in your newsletter, your magazine, your mailings, your annual report.

Add a sentence or two into everything you send out.

Include a return card for people to ask for more information.

Remember the old axiom, make it easy for people to give. That includes a simple reply vehicle!

5. Ask About Donating Their IRA, Tax Free.

Congress keeps extending the Charitable IRA Rollover.  This law allows people who are 70 ½ or older to make tax-free gifts of up to $100,000/year from their IRA.

What a wonderful way for your true believers to support you! Don’t be shy about suggesting this.

Just imagine if only one person acted on your suggestion!

Action Items for You Right Now:

RIGHT NOW, pull a list of long term donors.

RIGHT NOW, schedule an annual “estate/bequest” letter to them. Put it on the calendar.

RIGHT NOW, create two lines about estate gifts to add to all your communications.

You’ll be glad you did!

Me with Claire Meyeroff

Can’t wait to catch up with Claire in a couple weeks.

And here’s one more action item

Consider joining me on August 28 for a closer look at the ways you can pick the low-hanging fruit off the planned giving tree. I’ll be talking with my friend Claire Meyerhoff, an expert in planned giving marketing. (And yes, it IS all about getting the word out about the things you’re already doing in your PG program.)

We’ll be talking about the easy things you can do now to bring in more money through your planned giving program.

In the meantime, how about sharing your experience with planned giving? How did you make it work? What were your successes?

Leave a comment and let us all know!

  • Claire Axelrad

    Great suggestions Gail. I’ve done all these things, and they all work. And I got two people to donate their IRAs! Part of what you need to do is simply let folks know you’re in the legacy receiving game. It’s funny, but many of your loyal annual supporters will not think of leaving you a bequest on their own. You need to ask them. And a great way you’ve not mentioned is to ask them to leave you as a beneficiary, or contingent beneficiary, of their retirement plan. They can do this without going to an attorney, simply by signing a form they get from their retirement plan manager or agent.

  • Rebecca Patterson

    Interesting blog Gail with all the right ingredients to keep donors interested in the cause. We also say that keeping it personal , storytelling and driving loyalty are key factors too and we know the telephone lends itself well to this

  • Lorri Greif, CFRE

    Hi Gail,

    Many of your points are exactly, right on the mark.

    But as a major gifts guru, you know that simply writing a letter (or even two) to a targeted list is not going to bring in these gifts. Especially when the competition for these gifts is so strong and they are usually the largest gift a donor will every make.

    I’m always concerned that people expect a campaign result out of one or two steps and when it doesn’t happen, they give up and say “well we tried; I guess it’s not for us”.

  • gailperry

    Lorri, you’ve got a great point! I think people need to incorporate these small planned giving messages into everything NOW, whether they have the time or money for a big “campaign” to implement later.

    ANd don’t you hate it when people just give up and say “it’s not for us.” Talking about shooting yourself in the foot! : )

  • gailperry

    Rebecca, right on. I love the idea of using the phone too. Don’t you find that fundraisers struggle with the right message?

  • gailperry

    Claire, thanks so much for your always thoughtful comments! Yes yes about the contingent beneficiary of their retirement plan. THANKS for that addition!

  • Rebecca Patterson

    I think getting the message across is so important – Our Creative Director is in expert in this – read what he says .. … agree?

  • Jay Smith

    We recently had a donor notify us that we are in his will for half a million! The amazing thing is that this individual hadn’t given a thing to our school since graduating in 1969! Of course, our work isn’t over by any means. Since bequests are revocable we need to ensure that we keep contact with this individual. Donor stewardship.

  • gailperry

    Congrats Jay! you must have done something right with this donor all along!

  • Julie

    Gail, I love your articles, especially the “action items right now”! I have a question about the “estate/bequest letter”: Is there a time of year that is best for this? We run our annual appeal in the summer and begin our end of year campaign in November. Thanks!

  • Claire Meyerhoff

    For some orgs, the best time of year to send a bequest letter is…WHENEVER they can finally get it done! It’s crazy to see some orgs “work on” a bequest letter for months, even a year! Your donors are updating (or making) a will when they’ve had a major life transition like a death of a spouse, divorce, move, birth of a child — so you NEVER know when is a good time for your org’s letter to land in their mailbox.

  • Claire Meyerhoff

    That’s a great story! In pg marketing, the rule of thumb is to reach out to existing donors who have been very loyal over the years — but look at this bequest intention — an alum who has NEVER given! I think this is why it’s very important for orgs, in their materials — to ASK the question “Is XYZ School in your will?” 99 out of a hundred times, the boilerplate I see is “Remember XYZ School in your will.” BLAH! Passive! It’s like “Have a nice day.” ASK your readers/donors if you’re in the will, and give them a way to TELL you.

  • Claire Meyerhoff

    I think it shows that when that person sat down to think about WHO should be in his will — he thought about who/what was most important to him. Jay, obviously your school made a big impact on the donor’s life. Have you discussed with him — how he would like his gift to be used? A scholarship maybe, named after him or someone else?

  • Claire Meyerhoff

    BINGO. I love what you say here, Claire (great name, BTW). “Let folks know you’re in the legacy receiving game.” This is something I tell clients when working on the PG portions of their websites. Your donors don’t need to know EVERYTHING about how your org accepts gifts of real property — they just need to know you’re capable of doing it and have the resources to handle it.

  • Vicky

    Any thoughts on what an organization needs to have in place to accept bequests, IRA contributions etc.? We always seem to be at a loss as to how to handle anything outside of a direct cash gift.

  • Claire Meyerhoff

    Where are your accounts held? Ask someone at the financial institution for help, and it should be a simple answer. You probably need nothing more than basic instructions to give to the donor or the donor’s advisor (attorney, financial planner, accountant). Tax ID #, things like that. This might be a good time to think about setting up a “Planned Giving Committee” and ask professionals to help you in creating a more robust planned giving program.