Small Strides to Big Legacy Payoffs

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Joe is a single man, long in the tooth, and retired in Florida. He received the letter I had mailed him which explained how he could donate his house upon his death and that the house would, in turn, be sold with the proceeds going to our charity. I mailed this particular letter to Joe because he was a regular donor of gifts under $100 each, he was 70 years old, and seemingly unmarried without children.

Joe called right away and said, “I didn’t know what to do with my house. No one else in my family needs it after me. I was really stuck and wanted something good to happen with it. I love this charity, I want to leave the house to them—and by the way, it’s good from a tax perspective. You solved a huge problem for me.

As noted, Joe was a regular giver. The regularity of his gift was the tip-off about his commitment to us. That commitment meant he gave within his means based on his modest annual income; but his debt free home was the most significant asset he had, and upon his death his giving launches him into a major gift category. That’s why the small stride of writing him, paid off so grandly.

When Joe called me, I explained the benefits of donating his home: He’d receive an income tax deduction equal to the appraised fair market value of the property, with no capital gains tax due on the transfer to us. He’d remove a large taxable asset from his estate. He could take advantage of a variety of gift formats available for a donation of real estate, each offering unique planning benefits.

If you are scrambling to raise cash today, it’s because your organization did not pursue planned gifts five or ten years ago. Let me show you how to fix this issue for the future.

Hiding in Plain Sight

You too have “Joe’s” in your donor base, hiding in plain sight. Key to finding them, and to a successful planned giving program, is personal, real, communication with them.

Regular contact with your planned giving prospects, calls of good wishes, at least one in-person annual visit, remembering their birthday or a day that they cherish in association with your mission, is required. Your outreach must be real and meaningful.

If you want planned gifts, you need to send letters and mailers to invite prospects to talk with you to learn more about how estate giving works, and how it can benefit both them (the donor) and the organization they cherish. Waiting for them to contact you is not going to work.

Enhance Your Donor Correspondence

Your appeal or acknowledgement letter to a donor could include a simple P.S. that says something like “Please consider a charitable gift to benefit the XYZ foundation in your will.” A hospital could mention in their newsletter that the purchase of a new medical device “was made possible by a carefully planned gift in the will of a local donor.” And a conversation with a donor could offer a legacy option without even mentioning the words “planned giving.”

Keep It Simple

When you write to the best donor candidates for making a legacy gift, keep it simple and say, “Please remember the ABC Charity in you will.” Avoid off-putting language like “charitable bequest gift.” Instead keep it simple and focused on one legacy gift opportunity that you think fits them best. Communicate with the donors by using a usual method (email, postal mail, phone) or, if you think it will work, test a new method, like a ground service FedEx envelope or a US post office priority mail envelope, both of which are affordable.

Two Marketing Approaches

Comprehensive planned giving marketing has two distinct marketing approaches, one is Targeted Marketing and the second is Broadcast Marketing.

Targeted: Targeted marketing aims at your most committed longtime supporters. To identify them, begin by examining each donor’s giving history, paying particular attention to the donor’s level of giving over an extended period of time. Based on your ability to extract this information from your database, you can tailor your selection process and concentrate your planned giving marketing on that targeted group. Your final list is likely to feature loyal, committed donors and board members. What you are looking for is evidence of consistent support, be it financial or otherwise. For example, you’ll want to include volunteers who perhaps don’t give much money but who regularly give you their time or engage with your agency in other ways. Demonstrated loyalty is the most accurate predictor of prospective planned giving.

Central to targeted marketing is telling donor stories. Such stories motivate others to give and generate repeat giving among existing donors. The emotional impact of a heartfelt story of a donor who was able to make a significant gift without adversely affecting his or her finances (and who received tax benefits, to boot) can be magical. A real-life story like Joe’s illustrates the effectiveness of planned giving in ways that technical gift details never can. I prefer stories that are real, although composite stories are a reasonable substitute when necessary.

Target marketing usually includes mailings or events. For mailings, I use both large postcards (8.5” x 6”) and well-done newsletters. Sending four planned giving pieces every year, from February through September, is the required minimum schedule.

Broadcast: The second marketing approach, broadcast marketing, is aimed at all of your donors, a broad stroke. Broadcast marketing includes tactics such as planned giving web pages, receipt stuffers, newsletter articles, or a simple “Please remember us in your will” as part of your e-mail signature. These items are easy to administer and are important aspects of a planned giving program because they create awareness among all of your donors. This awareness will make your targeted group more likely to respond positively to the appeals they receive. In addition, broadcast marketing will typically generate its own steady flow of interested individuals outside your target groups. Broadcast marketing is an excellent means of communicating tax-advantaged current giving and gift annuity opportunities to your donors.

Target and broadcast marketing are both important and complement each other. If you combine both efforts, you will maximize the overall effectiveness of your planned giving program. However, you may want to emphasize one approach over the other depending on your development budget, or the profile of the donors. For example, as a general rule, if you have 600 donor prospects over age 55, then you most certainly should prioritize the targeted approach.


Whichever approach you choose, be proactive and take concrete steps. You can even start by offering one or two educational seminars to donors about the mutual benefits of planned giving. The truth is that with planned giving, time is of the essence. Many fundraisers don’t realize that the average time from when a gift is planned to when it is distributed at the end of the donor’s life is seven to ten years.

No matter how you ultimately shape your planned giving program, in order for it to be effective, it must regularly identify, cultivate, educate, meet with, and solicit your donor over age 55. Donors must be persuaded to think beyond their cash assets and focus on how the accumulated value of their estate can help establish a legacy that truly makes a difference in perpetuity.

Here’s a pledge that I have made, and I invite you to join me: “I pledge to invite every donor to remember us in their will or to make the best legacy arrangement from their estate.”

Would you share your experience with securing planned gifts? Contact me at

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