Showing appreciation for planned gifts

Julia Vail

Planned giving is essential for nonprofits as they foster long-term growth and secure their futures.

But as important as planned givers are, many organizations don’t know how best to thank donors who make bequests or set up trusts, experts say.

Many times, even planned givers are uncomfortable at events designed especially for them, since often the only thing they share with their fellow attendees is a commitment to make a donation after their deaths, says Chris McLeod, vice president of the Greater Charlotte Cultural Trust.

“People think these events are dull and maudlin,” she says.

As planned giving gains prominence, more organizations are finding ways to express their appreciation in ways that do not make donors feel uncomfortable.

One is to include them in special events for other types of donors, and mention them in annual reports and mail-outs, McLeod says.

This not only makes planned givers feel that their donation is appreciated, she says, but also gives them an opportunity to network with other donors and bring up planned giving as a future option.

“There’s a lot of cross-fertilization that goes on,” McLeod says. “If you recognize your planned-giving donors at that event, you’re seeding the idea in your other generous donors.”

Another method is the donor-recognition society, a special group that includes living donors who have made commitments, as well as donors who have died.

Usually the name of the society hints at the history or mission of the organization, underscoring the fact that planned givers have invested in its well-being over the long term, McLeod says.

One example is Wing Haven, a nonprofit garden and bird sanctuary in Charlotte, N.C. It consists of the house and garden of Elizabeth Clarkson, longtime gardener and nature lover, as well as the grounds of Elizabeth Lawrence, the first woman to receive a degree in landscape design from North Carolina State University.

In honor of the two women who invested so much in their gardens, Wing Haven named its society of planned givers the Elizabeths’ Legacy Society.

“Our volunteers and supporters have such a strong relationship with Wing Haven,” says Cathy Tolman, development director. “It makes them feel even more like a part of the family.”

The Carolina Raptor Center, an organization in Huntersville, N.C., that rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds of prey, established the Eyrie Society five years ago to recognize those donors who have supported the organization through a planned gift.

The word “eyrie,” which means newborn eagle, communicates the message that planned givers set up a “nest egg” for the organization, McLeod says.

Eyrie Society members are displayed prominently on the planned-giving section of the Carolina Raptor Center website, along with personal stories from some of the organization’s most generous planned givers.

“I have seen an increase in the last year in people requesting information on our [planned-giving] program,” says Blanche Evans, the center’s development director.

There are several things to consider when setting up a donor-recognition society for planned givers, McLeod says.

When it comes to posting names of society members, the more names the better, McLeod says. Usually six to 10 members is a good starting point.

“You want to communicate by the length of the list that other donors have determined your organization is planned-giving worthy,” she says.

Also important are the names themselves, she says. The more recognizable the individuals are, the more likely it is that other donors will consider the organization a safe bet.

“One of my organizations received a planned gift from a well-known investment advisor in town,” McLeod says, “which is effectively getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”

In compiling a list of society members, however, the donor’s wishes must come first, she says. If they prefer to be omitted, it is never acceptable to thrust them into the limelight.

“People consider their estate plans to be very private,” McLeod says. “A lot of folks may be supporting 20 charities, but are only making planned gifts to two.”

Though donor-recognition societies are designed to show gratitude to generous donors, they have other benefits as well, McLeod says.

When Wing Haven created its legacy society, other donors quickly sat up and took notice, she says.

“They called [Cathy] and said, ‘What is this legacy society and why is my name not there?'” McLeod says. “Cathy then had an opening to introduce planned giving to other types of donors.”

The Carolina Raptor Center capitalized on its donor-recognition society by enlisting members to help get the word out to potential donors, Evans says.

The Volunteer Planned Giving Committee, established in December of last year to educate volunteers on the benefits of planned giving, is made up of six members, including three donors who have made bequests to the organization.

“We’re thankful they made a planned gift, but we were also interested as to why they made the gift,” Evans says. “We wanted to see, ‘How can we leverage this? How can we take it a step further?'”

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