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Is this a Good Time or a Terrible Time for Bequest Fundraising?

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One of the more surprising outcomes of the COVID-19 crisis is a surge in people updating their Wills. Several online Will sites have reported twice the normal volume of people creating or updating their Wills.

Well, it makes sense, according to planned giving experts Professor Russell James and Michael Rosen. Read their new white paper, titled Legacy Fundraising: The Best of Times or the Worst of Times? You can find it at the Michael Rosen Says blog, where it is also available as a downloadable PDF.

Here’s what’s happening. Most people, most of the time, put off estate planning. They don’t see it as urgent, and they expect it to be difficult, both logistically and emotionally. Two things typically trigger people to consider their Will:

  1. Changes in family structure — marriage, divorce, birth of first child, etc.
  2. “Death becomes real” events — such as a diagnosis of cancer or other health crisis.

We are in the middle of a “death becomes real” event for almost everyone.

So should we be out there with bold, loud planned giving messages everywhere?

Not quite, Russell and Michael say.

Brash, simplistic, reminders of mortality are never a good way to encourage people to make charitable bequests. And now, where virtually everyone is experiencing “death becomes real,” the downside of that approach will likely be worse than ever.

So here’s what you can do:

Be top of mind for your donors.

That means doubling down on some things we should all be doing all the time anyway. Here’s what Russell and Michael recommend:

  • Thank donors, the right way. Thank donors quickly, well, and often. Show your appreciation for them as people, not simply sources of money. Research shows that thanking donors for their positive human qualities can make them feel better about their support — which can increase future giving.
  • Check in with donors. Call donors and say, “I’m calling to thank you for your support. With everything going on now, I wanted to ask how you’re doing.”
  • Collect and share stories. Tell the stories of donors who have left you in their Will — why they did it, and how it makes them feel. These stories are very powerful!
  • Show the impact of legacy giving. Tell a story about how your organization is able to fulfill its mission because someone who has passed left you in their Will.
  • Use a laundry list approach. In your regular fundraising, mention the variety of ways someone can support your organization. Include checkboxes for gifts by check, credit card, stock, gift in a Will, IRA transfer, real estate, or Donor Advised Fund. This de-emphasizes the reference to death.
  • Ask for permission. Ask donors if they would like to know more about monthly giving, gift in a Will, real estate, or Donor Advised Fund. It’s a great way to offer information without forcing it on them.
  • Offer help with their Wills. Make sure your website has information donors might find useful when writing their Wills, such as suggested language they can use to include the charity in their Wills. Offer helpful tools like a legacy journal workbook, an estate planning checklist, or webinars.
  • Engage with donors. Remember that your donors are far more than sources of cash for you. Look for ways you can provide value for them. Like symphony orchestras offering online concerts, museums and universities delivering online courses and others posting online tutorials. You could host virtual happy hours or other online events and virtual conferences.
  • Survey your supporters. Ask them for their thoughts. This is a powerful way to increase engagement and learn important things about your donors. (The Supporter Connection Survey is especially good at doing this!)

You might have noticed something about these recommendations: they are things you can and should do all the time! This is good bequest fundraising always. But it’s extra critical now.

The more you can help donors feel a strong sense of wellbeing, the more they will appreciate you and your organization. And the more likely they will be to include you in their Will.

Russell and Michael note that in the short-term, charities can expect a decline in revenue from completed legacy gifts. The massive drop in the stock market and a possible recession could erode real estate values, shrinking the size of bequests of people who die in the coming months. But as investment and real estate values rebound, estate values will once again increase, resulting in larger legacy gifts.

So are we in a good time or a bad time for legacy giving? It’s up to you. The bottom line for success: Keep talking about legacy giving, but do it in the right way!

Interested in the power of bequest fundraising? Members of The Fundraisingology Lab have access to Christiana Stergiou’s comprehensive online course, Your Complete Roadmap to Raising Money with Bequests — along with tons of other courses and resources for your fundraising. Check it out here.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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