Getting Started With Planned Giving

The most financially successful nonprofits aren’t funded exclusively through annual giving programs or foundation grants.

They achieve long-term, diversified financial strength through planned gifts — primarily bequests left in the wills of generous donors who believe strongly in their work.

If you manage a small or mid-size nonprofit, just one planned gift can fundamentally change your financial trajectory. And if you devote sufficient time and energy to building and marketing a Planned Giving program, you’ll begin to accrue multiple legacies that can, in turn, help support your work for decades and generations to come.

After all, bequest gifts don’t come in one- and two-digit amounts. The average charitable bequest is around $35,000 — and often runs much higher.

Unfortunately, many orgs shy away from creating planned gift programs. And they’re especially leery of starting programs now, in the midst of a pandemic.

But if you’re looking to build a strong, financially sustainable nonprofit, it’s not only appropriate to start a Planned Giving program – it’s a necessity.

Many of your loyal donors are looking for ways they can support your organization beyond their typical giving – and many experts say an increasing number of people are creating or updating their wills as they hunker at home.

This doesn’t mean you should suddenly go dark with your messaging or focus exclusively on end-of-life gifts. But some of your donors might be receptive to thinking about how they can support your organization through a planned gift – if they only knew it was an option.

If you already have a Planned Giving program, here’s some advice on how to message during Covid-19.

If you’re new to Planned Giving, here’s a quick, four-step guide to help you get started.


Step 1: Determine your readiness

While Planned Giving should be part of the fundraising toolbox for most nonprofits, not every organization is ready. To determine your readiness, consider these two questions:

Is your nonprofit at least five years old? Before you can ask your supporters to make a planned gift, they need confidence that your nonprofit will outlive them. This is difficult to achieve if you’re relatively new.

Do you have consistent donors who are 55 and up? Most donors don’t think about planned gifts before they reach their mid-50s, so you need to have a number of donors who are 55+ before you launch.

These needn’t be major donors.  Consistency is much more important than gift size.  If you’re an organization just 10 years old and have donors who have made a gift of any size in 7 or 8 of those years, they’re ideal prospects for a gift by will. 


Step 2: Start simple

There are a number of different planned giving vehicles, some of which are quite complex.

I strongly advise you start simple. Rather than trying to market hard-to-understand methods like charitable lead unitrusts (you don’t want to know!), encourage your donors to make simple bequests—gifts in their wills.


Step 3: Market for the long term

Most of your donors won’t think to include your organization in their wills unless you ask them.

So ask. Ask with an eye toward using multi cultivation and solicitation fundraising channels.

Create a page on your website that explains how donors will further your long-term work and how easy it is for them to make a gift by will. Include information about Planned Giving in your other communications channels — including your print and digital pubs, email appeals, annual report, and events.

If budget permits, create direct mail appeals that focus on Planned Giving. LAPA Fundraising recommends at least two such mailings per year.

Your goal is to start a long-term conversation, so make your marketing materials warm, factual, sincere, and straightforward.

These are long-term asks that likely won’t pay off for years. So it’s important to be consistent and reinforce the message regularly with the idea that some of your donors will keep you in mind when the time is right.


Step 4: Create a Recognition Society

Stewardship is a critical component of any fundraising campaign — but it’s especially important for charitable bequests. We don’t want donors changing their minds.

I urge the nonprofits I work with to create a special society for planned gift donors that honors their gifts. Publicize the members on your website and in your annual report (with permission). Maybe host an annual program to show your gratitude.

Remember, a Planned Giving program requires sustained, long-term effort. But that doesn’t mean it has to be overly complicated or require a massive investment.

By starting with the basics — and being smart and consistent about your messaging and stewardship — you have an opportunity to make a lasting positive impact on your organization.


Want to learn more? I recently published a free guide that walks you through how to create your Planned Giving program. You can find it here.

Tony welcomes your feedback on our blog.

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