How to stop feeling awkward talking about bequests

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 (or board member, ED or CEO) should ever pass by!

There are definitely better ways to deal with conversations about bequests that don’t involve you desperately gesturing for the bill.

Here are a few ways you can get comfortable talking about bequests with your donors.

Get over it

I know, that’s tough talk!

But as a non-profit professional, you must not let your personal hang ups get in the way of your cause receiving a potentially transformative gift.

Take some time to examine 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 taboos?

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?

Besides, bequests aren’t really about dying – as the inimitable Richard Radcliffe likes to say, “legacies are life driven – and only death activated.”

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, let’s stay focused on one your most important jobs as a fundraising professional:

Building 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.

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're 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.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

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 bequest?

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?

And so on, and so on – 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 recorded this important information!

While my aforementioned embarrassed Director of Development has since moved on from his role, he left a lasting legacy of his own by neglecting to record or make note of my bequest pledge.

Over the years, I’ve told no less than three different people from this same organization that I’ve included them in my will, and they’ve yet to acknowledge it.

Among other things, this is a process and systems issue. This is a great example of the need to invest in a CRM system for your organization, and develop 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 bags of money on the table!

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

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