Legacy gifts don’t fall from the sky.
Legacy donors aren’t delivered by storks.
You won’t find them hiding behind cabbage leaves.
You’ll mostly find them living in your donor database, volunteer roster, alumni mailing list, membership roll, client files and anyplace else folks connect with you and have a positive affiliation. An affiliation with you.
You see, the mere fact someone is wealthy does not make them a legacy giving prospect. Period. And the fact they’re wealthy and philanthropically inclined does not make them a legacy giving prospect for your charity.
The biggest indicator someone is a good legacy giving prospect for your organization is their affinity and loyalty. Generally this is demonstrated through affiliation (how they are connected to you) and behavior (what they do with you).
Of course, someone who simply shares the values your organization enacts can also be a viable legacy giving prospect. But they’re not likely to make a bequest or other type of legacy gift unless you first develop their affinity and loyalty — to your charity. So let’s begin with the fruit already picked and in your donor basket. We can look at the low-hanging fruit later. I do not recommend investing a lot of resources going after the fruit you’re hoping will just fall from the sky (though a little couldn’t hurt).
Fruit in Your Donor Basket
If someone has already donated to you, consider them as “picked.” These are your best legacy giving prospects because they’ve already got skin in your game. Of course, not all fruit is equally juicy. And by “juicy,” I don’t mean the donor has to be rich or even currently giving at a major donor level. They just have to already possess obvious affinity and loyalty. There are a number of key indicators of potential legacy giving juiciness:
1. Ripeness (aka recency)
Before you ask for a gift, you need to get folks ready to be asked. Donors who have given in the last three to five years are already ready, so they’re your most likely prospects. You’re currently top-of-mind for them, and they see meaning and purpose in what you do. With these folks, striking while the iron is hot makes sense. You don’t want to cultivate, cultivate, cultivate – until they move on to another charity. Rather, show them now how much you enjoy and appreciate them now. If you do, and if they make a legacy commitment, they’re actually more likely to continue to make increased annual gifts as well. Because now they have even more skin in the game. They’re fully invested.
2. Durability (aka frequency)
Donors who’ve given to you for multiple years, or who make multiple gifts within the course of a year, are also extremely likely prospects. Per Giving USA Leaving a Legacy: A New Look at Planned Giving Donors more than 50% of legacy donors had been donors for longer than 20 years. Repeat donors demonstrate a lasting affinity for what you do. You know you’re already close to their heart. These folks don’t need a lot of cultivation at this point, because they know you. Hopefully you know them too. It’s also good to know frequent donors are highly likely to continue and make future gifts. People who are loyal are wired to demonstrate consistency and follow through on their commitments.
Fruit in Your Assorted Baskets
People can feel very connected to your organization but not yet be monetary donors. In fact, it’s not uncommon for charities to receive surprisingly large bequests from folk who were on one or more of their mailing lists but not their donor list. Many of these people will feel as strongly connected to you as your donors by virtue of their volunteering or taking advantage of your programs or services. Many will want to pay back the benefit they feel they received. Again, some of this fruit is likely juicier than others. Look for these indicators for non-donors closely connected to you:
1. Ripeness (aka recency)
The more current the direct affiliation, the more likely a donor will respond positively to a legacy giving appeal. For example, a current board member is more likely to add a bequest to their will than a former one. For all organizations, look at volunteers who’ve participated with you in the past three to five years. If you’re a school, also look at recent graduates and their parents. If you’re a health organization, also look at recent patients, clients and their families. If you’re an arts or cultural organization, also look at recent subscribers and members. These are folks who’ve come in close contact with your organization and hopefully feel positively about their connection. If they don’t feel positively, it can only help you to reach out and find out why not.
2. Durability (aka frequency)
Sometimes people will have multiple points of connection, direct and indirect, over a period of years. While they may not necessarily identify as being any one thing in relation to your organization (e.g., donor, volunteer, patient, client, student, parent, member, ticket buyer, etc.), they do clearly identify you as being something good in their lives. Good enough that they keep coming back and/or recommending you to others. They may not consciously self-identify as an “ABC Charity Donor,” but they might unconsciously identify as an “ABC Charity Booster.” At least they’ve not only heard of you, they already think you’re a good guy. In other words, their feelings about you are more than neutral.
People who don’t yet positively identify with your charity may identify with your cause. People are increasingly looking for causes where they can enact their most cherished values. If you do an effective job addressing climate change, yet they don’t know much about you, you may be an organization they’d welcome hearing more from. Note I say hearing more from. For fruit to be low-hanging it must be nearby and within your reach. This can be the case with folks who are friends of board members and staff, community leaders or just folks living in your neighborhood or working in your field of expertise. They likely know about you, just not a lot. Look for these indicators for people drawn to your cause:
1. In the Right Box (not “loose”)
Birds of a feather, flock together; so does fruit in a box (I apologize for the mixed metaphors). If you’ve got a box with a dozen Harry and David pears, and 11 out of the 12 are current donors, you’ve got a good chance of persuading the 12th to join the party. They’re clearly hanging out with people already close to you. They know about you. They just don’t have the Harry and David sticker quite yet affixed. Were this a lone pear just hanging out someplace in the warehouse, you’d have a difficult time finding it or connecting with it. With the one in the box, you’ve got an excellent chance of reaching it by reaching out to any or all of the other 11 pears.
2. Positive Recent Experience
Sometimes people haven’t known you a while, but the one connection they had with you was memorable – in a good way. You may not find them in your donor or volunteer database or, in fact, in any other database. Perhaps they were MC at an event. Or you met them at a conference or open house. Or one of your board members recounted a positive experience they had as a patient. Whatever the encounter, you know it was off-the-charts positive. If this person possesses some of the general indicators of a good legacy giving prospect, they may be worth approaching in this regard. So… let’s take a look at these general indicators.
Where Legacy Donors are Likeliest to Hang Out
Even among donors sitting in your baskets or hanging low on your tree branches, unless you work at this persistently and strategically 90% of donor mortality will simply result in lost current giving. Most people don’t automatically think about leaving a charitable bequest. They have to be prompted. And your prompting will be least likely to fall on deaf ears in the following areas:
1. Among People Without Children
Even among loyal donors, people making wills usually consider leaving legacies to family before legacies to charity. Per legacy giving expert and researcher Russell James, the absence of children was by far the most dominant predictor of charitable estate planning. Among current donors age 50+ with no children, 50% had charitable estate plans. Among similar donors with children — who already had completed a will or trust – just 17% with children only and 9.8% with grandchildren included a charitable component.
2. Among People Age 60 – 75
People tend to think more about charitable legacies as they reach the end of their lives. At this point they have a better sense of their resources and what they’ll need/not need for themselves and their families. That’s not to say younger people won’t leave a charitable bequest; they absolutely do. Yet per Dr. Russell James’ research, over 80% of planned gifts are revocable and over a 14-year period 35% of donors removed some or all charities from their estate plans. So it makes sense to target people at a stage of life where they’re less likely to change their minds, and more likely to leave as generous a gift as possible.
3. Among People Within a Few Years of Death
This is a group most likely to think about what will happen to their assets after they’re gone, and least likely to change their minds after making a charitable bequest. It may seem ghoulish to approach people who are ill and aging for a bequest, but often they’re delighted to be asked. People are on a continual quest for meaning, and legacy giving can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered. When people have a diminished sense of well-being, they’ll seek to do something to feel better. In fact, among the most likely times people add a charitable bequest are becoming a widow/widower; being diagnosed with cancer; decline in health; being diagnosed with heart problems or a stroke, or in response to the last survey they receive before death. When you approach people facing their mortality, talk with them not only about the values they want to endure, but also about who they may wish to honor or memorialize through their gift. I have set up countless endowed funds named for people’s parents, grandparents, children and even the donors themselves.
Target Your Most Likely Prospects
The reason I titled this post “Where Are Our Nonprofit’s Legacy Donors?” is because it makes sense to focus limited resources where you’ll get your best results. In marketing, there’s something called the 40-40-20 Rule. It holds 40% of your success comes from your audience, 40% from your offer and 20% from your creative. Alas, most nonprofits don’t spend nearly enough time making sure they’re targeting the right audience for their legacy giving offer and creative.
Don’t make the mistake of simply blasting your legacy giving messaging out to the entire world; then doing nothing much but waiting for fish to bite. If you think about it, you can easily fish in the equivalent of a stocked pond – your databases and mailing lists. You’ll get a lot more bequest “bites” if you’re strategic.
Aside from looking in all the places outlined in this article, you can also purchase predictive planned giving donor analytics. There are companies who will run your database through a series of other databases that screen for wealth (income and assets), financial behavior, political giving, charitable giving and so forth while also determining general demographics and propensities of donors in your own database such as age (or life stage), gender, race, religion, income levels, education, areas of interest, timeliness and frequency of giving, volunteerism, other affiliations, etc. Your data is melded with general database data to come up with profiles that identify those with particular “planned giving likelihood” for you. One of the best outcomes I’ve found from purchasing these services is making leadership confident you have real legacy giving potential. Some folks are more easily persuaded by data than anything else! Once you have buy-in that a legacy giving program makes sense for you, you can stop arguing about if and begin to robustly dig in to when, what, who, where and how.
Let the World Know You’re in the Legacy Business
Just because the broader market is not your best bet does not mean you should ignore it entirely. Many nonprofits have had the experience of receiving a legacy gift seemingly out of the blue. It happens! So definitely get the word out about the outcomes legacy gifts make possible. Talk about this wherever you showcase your work and how it is supported — through your website, blog, e-newsletter, social media, print materials and everywhere else you can think of. Tell folks what a bequest can accomplish, and how much you’d be honored to partner with them to make a lasting difference in your community and the world.
Want to Learn More about Finding, Attracting and Securing Legacy Gifts?
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Photo by Inga Shcheglova on Unsplash