Easy-to-implement legacy giving strategies for small nonprofits

Editor’s Note: Philanthropy Journal will present Jan Doolin’s workshop, “How to Launch and Sustain a Successful Planned Giving Program,” from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 7 on the NC State University Campus in Raleigh. For details and registration information, click here.

By Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE

You’re stretched thin. Competition for philanthropic dollars has intensified. You know that long-term survival depends on strengthening revenue streams. What are you doing about it?

If you’re like too many nonprofits, you’re missing what’s right in front of your eyes: legacy giving. The lion’s share of philanthropy in the U.S. comes from individuals. Nearly 70 percent of people make gifts to charity during their lifetimes; only 10 percent leave a bequest. Why? No one asks them! It turns out that the act of asking makes a huge difference. And don’t tell me you can’t ask because you’re too small or understaffed.

Just because you can’t afford (or aren’t quite ready yet) to mount a full-on legacy giving campaign is no excuse to avoid the basics.

Imagine what might happen over time if you begin to ask folks to leave a legacy in their wills. Even without a dedicated staff person to focus on legacy giving, it’s easy to implement some simple strategies that don’t require a big investment of staff time and resources. All you want is to let folks know you’re open for business when it comes to legacy giving. It’s very little work, after all, to accept a bequest.

DO: Include this simple phrase on marketing collateral – your outer envelopes, email signatures, business cards, letterhead and wherever else you can think of: Please remember [your name here] in your will or estate plan.

Include basic planned giving messaging everywhere. You never know where your prospects reside; they aren’t confined to specific age groups or giving levels. And this includes the Internet. Don’t waste any opportunity. If you’ve done some predictive modeling around planned giving likelihood, you may have a better idea who your best prospects are, so save more expensive targeted legacy campaigns for them (or for folks who’ve given frequently and are clearly loyal).

Showcase the outcomes legacy gifts make possible. Whenever you tell stories about what donors’ gifts are accomplishing, include a line or two (where appropriate) about how these outcomes were made possible by a legacy gift. Your purpose here is simply to create awareness of the impact legacy giving can have. It may be obvious to you, but a lot of folks just don’t think about it. They think bequests are reserved for the wealthy. Dissuade them of this notion.

Profile legacy donors in your print and online newsletters. Be sure to include a range of supporters at various donation sizes so that everyone can see themselves as a future legacy donor. It’s great to showcase a $1 million bequest, but the $5,000 insurance policy that someone left you deserves mention as well. There are a lot of unneeded, forgotten policies sitting around in people’s drawers at home. They don’t need them, and their kids don’t need them. You do. So it’s your job to plant the seed.

Include legacy giving information under “Ways to Give” or “Donate” on your website. Stay focused on donor benefits, not on vehicles (i.e., “Income for Life” vs. “Charitable Remainder Trusts”). On this page, include one or two stories or videos showcasing outcomes made possible through legacy gifts.

Make it easy for folks to reach you for more information. Give a live person’s name and contact information. Don’t make them call a general number or a generic “director of development.”


Focus on specific intricacies of how planned giving vehicles work. This information is readily available and will cause your potential donor’s eyes to roll back in their sockets. Instead, briefly mention the benefits the donor will receive (e.g., income for life, tax benefits, bolstering retirement income, perpetuating personal values, etc.) with a heavy emphasis on the lasting social benefit.

Use fine print. Most legacy giving prospects are age 40-plus. Research shows you’re best with 12 point type and a serif font (for print) and a sans serif font (online). And avoid reverse-out (white showing through black) print.

Anyone, of any age or income level, can make a charitable bequest. And leaving a legacy that reflects their values, and perhaps honors or memorializes a loved one, is an act that can be very meaningful to people who care about your mission and vision. Don’t deny them this opportunity. Let them know what such a bequest can accomplish and how much you’d be honored to partner with them to make a lasting difference in your community and the world.

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, blogs at Clairification, which was honored as the Best Fundraising Blog of the 2013 Fundraising Professional of the Year Award. She has helped nonprofits raise hundreds of millions over a career inspiring volunteers and professionals to implement innovative fundraising and marketing strategies that advance the mission, vision and values of causes addressing society’s most pressing problems.

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