How to stop feeling awkward about planned giving

legacy gifts

Many years ago, I was having dinner with a local Director of Development, when I shared with him that I had included the organization he worked for in my Will. 

He seemed to stop breathing – as his face got redder and redder, I wondered if I’d have to get up and give him the Heimlich maneuver (now, that would be a donor meeting for the record books!)

As his eyes darted around me, looking for an escape route, I realized the terrible truth.

I had embarrassed him! 

He felt awkward having a conversation about my bequest, so instead of acknowledging it, he changed the subject, missing an incredible opportunity that no fundraiser should ever pass by! 

There are definitely better ways to deal with conversations about planned giving that don’t involve  desperately gesturing for the bill and looking for the nearest exit.

Here are a few ways you can start getting more comfortable talking about bequests with your donors.

Examine your own beliefs first

Take some time to understand your personal feelings about donors including a gift to your organization in their Will. 

WHY do you find it awkward? Is it because you think it’s about death, one of the last taboo topics in many cultures? 

Is it because it’s also about money, one of the other things many of us have learned that we don’t talk about in “polite company”, making donor bequests a double whammy when it comes to taboo topics?

Being honest with yourself, and exploring and understanding your beliefs about these two topics will make you a much better fundraiser.

Can you do some reading to understand the cultural hang-ups we may have about death and dying? Can you continue your professional development, and set a goal to better understand the motivations of your donors when it comes to legacy giving? 

Build your relationship

One of the top questions I hear about planned giving is “how do I ask a donor to make a bequest”? 

There are a lot of ways to do this effectively, including through face to face meetings, highly personalized and targeted direct mail, or phone.

But I don’t want to delve into channels and specific tactics here today – instead, I want to focus on one of your most important jobs as a fundraising professional:

First, build meaningful relationships with your donors.

Get to know why they give, what’s important to them about your cause, how they like to hear from you, and what they want to achieve with their philanthropy.

This will help you to understand if leaving a bequest might be a good fit for them – and if so, how to most effectively and appropriately ask them to consider including a gift in their Will.

First express gratitude - then ask great questions

If you do get taken by surprise by a donor who tells you they’ve included your charity in their Will, here is what you say:

“THANK YOU! That’s such wonderful news! What a generous thing to do – we are so grateful for your incredible commitment! A donation like this will make such a difference…”

You should use your own words, but you get the idea. 

Once you’ve shared your heartfelt and enthusiastic thanks, your next step is to ask a great question or two:

What was it that inspired you to make this generous gift?

What do you envision achieving with your legacy?

I know our ED/CEO/board chair will be thrilled to hear about your donation – may I set up a time for the three of us to have lunch, and speak more about how you’d like to see your bequest put to work? 

Your goal here is twofold: to better understand why they’ve chosen to give this gift, and to establish an appropriate next step to keep your conversation going (if they wish), thereby continuing to build and strengthen your relationship.

Legacy giving is a long game – think of it as a marathon, rather than a sprint. 

Make sure you’ve documented this important information!

While my aforementioned embarrassed Director of Development has since moved on from his role, he left a lasting legacy when he did not record or make note of my bequest pledge.

Over the years, I told no less than three different people from this same organization that I had included them in my Will, and they never did acknowledge it (and guess what happened the next time I updated my Will…) 

Among other things, this is a process and systems issue. This is a great example of the need to invest in a CRM system, training for the team, and developing the policies and processes you need to ensure important information like this is captured AND acted upon.

If your leaders don’t understand the value of systems and infrastructure to your fundraising, they’re putting your organization at significant risk - not to mention leaving significant money on the table! 

So, how do you feel about talking about bequests? Do you have some work to do to become more comfortable when it comes to discussing legacy giving with your donors? If so, what kind of resources and information would you find helpful?

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