There’s a lot of potential legacy giving out there in the universe. Per Giving USA, giving by bequest was an estimated $41.19 billion in 2020, and grew 10.3% from 2019 (an increase of 9.0%, adjusted for inflation). What are you doing to assure some of it will flow to your cause?
First you have to identify your audience for legacy gifts. I cover this subject in depth in Where Are Our Nonprofit’s Legacy Donors? Contrary to the way most nonprofits behave, legacy gifts don’t simply fall from the sky. They’re not delivered by storks carrying baskets filled with wills, trusts and beneficiary designations. You need to do something proactive.
You can’t simply rest on your reputation, however solid it may be. You could be raising tons and tons of money annually, and it won’t necessarily translate to bequests. It’s not because your donors aren’t the will-writing kind. That may be true for some of them, but there are other simple ways to leave a legacy accessible to all. Donor willingness is not the problem.
Your willingness to prioritize building a legacy giving program is the key. No charity succeeds that simply waits by the phone for folks to call. You’ll receive a bequest or two perhaps. But nowhere near what you could receive if you took the bull by the horn.
People make legacy gifts because they are asked. People may believe you’re awesome. But when it comes to distributing the hard-earned income accrued over a lifetime, they just don’t think of you that way.
Figuring out a strategy to get folks thinking of you as a recipient of their philanthropic largess after death is step number one. I’ve written about that plenty (e.g., see here and here); today I want to discuss something else. Something that will help you take charge of your own destiny, as you simultaneously help donors take charge of theirs.
Legacy Giving is Tied to Donor Identity
Read that headline again.
It should make your mind explode. If it’s not, you’re not thinking about it enough.
Identity is the whole ballgame when it comes to legacy giving.
You see, once people are asked, the reason they make a legacy gift – and the size of that gift – is directly related to how much your cause resonates with their identity. In fact, if you review the research on social psychology, organizational behavior, relationship marketing and nonprofit donor retention, identification is a key driver of loyalty.
TIP: I always ask major donors what legacy they’d like to leave. I ask this regardless of whether we’re in discussion around “planned giving” (which I define broadly to encompass any type of major, capital, or endowment gift, whether outright or deferred). It’s a generative, open-ended question that prompts folks to think about their values – the ideals that represent the best versions of themselves. This type of thinking makes people feel good, putting them into an open, generous frame of mind. In this way, your conversation paves the way for a conversation around giving.
Giving reflects who the donor is and who they aspire to become. One scholar, Paul Schervish, wrote: “philanthropy provides donors the opportunity ‘to excavate their biographical history, or moral biography … and their anxieties and aspirations for the future.”
Help Donors Create Philanthropic Autobiographies
A study by the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at the University of Kent, “How Donors Choose Charities,” found philanthropy to be significantly influenced by a process of creating ‘philanthropic autobiographies.’ All giving is shaped by a host of personal factors, such as family and professional backgrounds, social experience, tastes, yearnings, preferences and passions.
Legacy giving is particularly aspirational. Even people who don’t make annual gifts may aspire to be seen as philanthropists after their deaths. In fact, it’s common for a charity to receive a bequest from someone who gave volunteer time, but never money, during their lifetime.
TIP: As you work with major donors around major gifts, outright or deferred, imagine the epitaph you might write for them. Don’t actually do this; it’s just an exercise to put you in an appreciative, helpful stance as you work with them.. Have you ever talked with someone who told you what they’d like to see inscribed on their grave stone? Their spontaneous answer, before they get silly or begin to look up bits of poetry or scripture, is almost always tied to their identity and values. I looked up a few simple epitaphs and found:
She did no harm.
A believer in truth and justice.
Scholar, Teacher, Leader, Friend.
Lover of the sea
She planted kindness and gathered love.
Generous of heart, constant of faith.
A painter of rainbows.
If you have no idea what you’d say about your donor’s life, values and legacy, it’s a clue you need to learn more about your donor’s sense of identity and identification. Once you tease out what matters most to them, you’ll know how to talk with them about creating their own autobiography through their philanthropy.
3 Strategies to Guide Donors to the Best Version of Themselves
You are in the happiness delivery business, and asking for philanthropic gifts is a way to help donors find joy and purpose. Delivering this requires you to learn what values your organization enacts that most strongly align with your donor’s values. There are three ways to approach making this values match, and they all involve making giving to your charity part of the donor’s life story. (See Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor, Dr. Russell James.)
1. Visualized Philanthropic Autobiography: ‘The Christmas Carol’
Help your donor view their life from a third person perspective. When Scrooge was visited by three ghosts who helped him visualize his life – past, present and future – from the perspective of others, he didn’t like the view. He vowed to be a better, more generous person.
You don’t want to lecture donors, of course, but you may wish to consider how your communications can invoke the spirit of generosity.
TIP: Offer examples of generosity given or generosity received in online and offline marketing materials. Tell stories from both donors and beneficiaries explaining their excitement or gratitude about a gift given to you. Donors are influenced by peers or authoritative figures; when you share their giving stories you invoke the persuasion principle of ‘social proof’ espoused by Robert Cialdini. Similarly, when people see a gift made a demonstrative difference, this acts as a short-cut to trust. It’s another manifestation of ‘social proof,’ also known as ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ Where others lead, your donor will follow.
NOTE: Tribute giving in honor or memory of loved ones is an example of how donors live their visualized philanthropic autobiography. It shows others they care, and knowing others see them as generous, loving and ‘good people’ makes the donor feel happy.
2. Autobiographical Heroism: ‘Holding up a Mirror
Help your donor be favorably perceived. When gazing on their reflection, people want to love what they see. Ego drives us to want to be better. You can play a role in helping your donor look in the mirror and see a ‘hero’ — what Merriam-Webster defines as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.”
The easiest way to show admiration is through gratitude, recognition and donor love.
TIP: Shower your donors with love everywhere you can think of. Use thank you phone calls, letters, videos, texts and personalized emails. Develop a legacy recognition society. Report back on accomplishments.
Tell them “you make this possible” rather than “look what we” did.
Tell results-oriented stories sharing “see how you saved the day.”
NOTE: Named endowments are an example of how donors write their autobiographical heroism story. It’s a concrete demonstration of their heroic acts, and their life lives on in the name of the Chair, Scholarship or Fund they endow.
3. Symbolic Immortality: ‘The Gravestone Effect’
Help your donor’s values live on, in memory, after death. Before they die, many people think about how they would like to be remembered. This may include an epitaph, or ashes being scattered over a place of importance to the deceased, or even the planting of a tree. The way a person chooses to be memorialized is personal to them, and that’s the point. When you discover your donor’s cherished values, you can help ensure they live on through their philanthropy.
Every time you’re face to face with a donor is an opportunity to find out a little more about what makes them tick. Ask open-ended questions to draw them out. Generally “what” and “how” questions are best. “Why” questions can put people on the defensive. For example, “What in your upbringing do you think led you here” is better than “Why do you believe this is so important?”
TIP: Conduct a brief survey; this can be a lead-in to a subsequent conversation. It’s often easier than setting up a visit, you’ll learn a lot, and your donor will appreciate you cared enough to ask for their thoughts – especially if you tell them this is being sent to a select group of loyal supporters whose feedback you deeply value. Remember, donors generally join your cause as an expression of their values. Often they want to feel part of a community of like-minded people. Let them know their participation is helping you with planning, program delivery and creation of a more (healing, compassionate, just, equitable, safe, connected, fill-in-the-blank) community. After they complete the survey, follow up with them to thank them and see if they’d be willing to talk with you about their answers.
NOTE: Naming opportunities are an example of the symbolic gravestone effect. Literally, their legacy may be written in stone. If you’ve ever had a family member or friend take you to a building with their name on it, you’ll know how powerfully compelling this strategy can be. It behooves you to consider naming opportunities – even if it’s just the name of a lunch, a portion of your event, or your blog. You don’t have to be in the middle of a capital campaign to offer a bit of symbolic immortality.
Make Your Legacy Part of Your Donor’s Legacy
You’re in this together, today and tomorrow. I’ve found when you don’t abandon your donors, they won’t abandon you either. Legacy gifts may not fall from the sky, but they’re all around you. Just remember:
- People make philanthropic legacy gifts because they are asked, and
- People make philanthropic legacy gifts because they reflect their cherished values.
You, as a philanthropy facilitator, can do your donors a real solid. People are proud of philanthropic autobiographies as eternal symbols of their best selves.
Want to Help Donors Make Larger Philanthropic Gifts?
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If you’re not strategically focused on building relationships with major donor prospects, you need to start.
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Photo by Kyle Nieber on Unsplash