Listening to donors central to planned giving

By Mary Teresa Bitti

Mary Ellis Peterson has had a busy morning. She was helping get a house ready for sale, the proceeds of which will go to the Minneapolis Foundation.

“In 1985, a donor gave us her house but she kept the right to live in it as long as she lived,” says Peterson. “It’s called a real estate gift with retained life estate, and it’s a planned gift few people know about.”

As gift planning officer with the Minneapolis Foundation, Peterson’s job is to make potential donors aware of all the options for planned giving, and align those options with their needs and desires.

In the case of this recent gift, the money from the sale of the house will establish a fund to support causes the donor supported all her life.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Peterson. “And her family doesn’t have to deal with selling the house.”

Founded in 1915, the Minneapolis Foundation is one of the oldest community foundations in the U.S, with assets of $710 million, 850 separate funds and grants between $30 million and $40 million a year.

“We know the community, who is doing good work and who may be new and need a nudge, and give all that information to people who want to contribute in some way,” says Peterson.

That’s why, in her role as gift planning officer, Peterson makes sure to listen carefully to what potential donors say.

“The way planned giving differs from annual giving is you do a lot more listening and a lot less talking,” she says. “You want to tap into what they want to accomplish, what their legacy is to be. If there is a match then help them find a way to do it. It really is about matching passions.”

Peterson outlines seven elements she believes are critical to successful planned giving programs.


It’s not important to look for people who give big annual gifts, she says. It’s more important to look for consistency of giving over time, because even small gifts in a bequest can be substantial.

“When I was at the University of Minnesota Foundation, we had a number of six-figure gifts in bequests from people who had perhaps given $25 in their lifetime,” she says.


People who have been volunteering or giving for a number of years are likely to want to help in other, more strategic ways.

So Peterson recommends identifying people who have a connection to your organization, because those people probably have a passion for your nonprofit, too.

“If you are asking someone to give out of their principal or estate, you are kind of asking them to make you a member of their family,” she says. “So you have to earn that trust.”


“People don’t do their estate plan because you have a campaign going,” says Peterson.  “They do it because they have something going on in their life that means it could change.”

And because many people aren’t aware that organizations are seeking or accepting bequests and other planned gifts, it’s important to ask for them specifically, she says.

That increases the likelihood they will remember your organization when the time comes – and that’s important because you may not know when that time is.

“You don’t want to be the best kept secret,” she says.


Before making a planned gift, donors need to feel confident that an organization they support will be around for a long time to come.

“People are not going to leave you in their will if you are a three-year project,” says Peterson.

It’s best to wait at least five years before launching a planned giving program in order to develop a track record and pattern of giving.

Good stewardship

It is critical that donors see your organization as viable and accountable.

If they know where their money is going and see good stewardship and professional investing, they will be more likely to agree to a planned gift, says Peterson.


“Donors don’t want to just throw money at a problem,” she says.  “They want to fix the problem.  Show them your successes.”


And finally, nonprofits should thank their donors.

That could be through something similar to a legacy society, like Community Builders at the Minneapolis Foundation, that honors people who have pledged to make a future gift.

Not only does it thank them for their thoughtfulness, says Peterson, its shows others, “‘Hey, you can do this, too.’ “

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