“Legacy? What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you will never get to see.”
— Lin Manuel Miranda, playwright
Planting for the future is why a donor might want to leave a legacy to your nonprofit. They won’t live to see the impact, but they’ll know – deep in their heart and soul – they planted the seeds that would find a cure for cancer… save the ocean… eliminate hunger… assure essential services… or do whatever thing resonates with their values.
“I think the whole world is dying to hear someone say, ‘I love you.’ I think that if I can leave the legacy of love and passion in the world, then I think I’ve done my job in a world that’s getting colder and colder by the day.”
– Lionel Richie, singer-songwriter
Before someone chooses your charity as the beneficiary of their legacy, you have to make the case that gets them to even consider doing such a thing. Somehow you must convince them they can enact their love and passion through you. They can leave a legacy that tells your organization, community and even the world – “I love you.”
No one likes to contemplate their own mortality. Nonetheless, folks do enjoy thinking about their values. Which is why one of my favorite questions to ask of donors is this: What legacy would you like to leave the world?
“Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.”
– Peter Strople, business strategist
Thinking about values and leaving impressions almost always prompts an interesting, engaged conversation. Even if folks have never really thought of this before, they tend to enjoy thinking about it. Note, this is quite different from asking: Where would you like your money to go after you die? Many people think they won’t have that much money left. And people tend to think of legacies in material terms, like having a huge bank account or valuable real estate. Leaving an impact, though, can be a more powerful legacy.
You want to talk about philanthropy (aka “love of humanity”), not finance. Donors (especially well-off ones) have their own financial guides. You’re their philanthropic guide. As such, it’s your job – and privilege – to talk with donors about things that bring them joy, not worry. Help them create an autobiography that includes leaving a legacy to perpetuate their values.
How to Spread the Word You Welcome Legacy Gifts
Don’t expect folks to leave you a legacy out of the blue. It happens, but if you want a steady stream of legacies upon which you can come to rely, you must commit to doing the work. And you must be patient and take a long-term view. It’s not hard, but it takes planning and consistent follow through.
If you do these four simple things, you’ll be well rewarded.
1. TALK about leaving a legacy
Making people aware you value legacy gifts is the first step to getting them.
Too often, when I’ve asked current annual donors (even major ones) why they haven’t made a provision in their estate plans to leave a legacy, I’ll hear: “Oh, I didn’t know your organization accepted these types of gifts.”
Your donors likely give to more than one organization. If others are talking to them about legacy giving, and you aren’t, what do you think is the likely outcome?
Everywhere you can, talk about the benefits of leaving a legacy. Put it on your website, annual appeal remit piece, donation landing page, blog, e-news, annual report, carrier envelopes, e-signature… everywhere! Just something simple, like:
- Want to protect the rainforests? Consider a gift in your will.
- Want to find a cure for dementia? Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
- Consider leaving a legacy… so your cherished values live on.
Focus on the psychological and emotional benefits of paying it forward, rather than the financial ones. Sure, there may be income, gift and estate tax benefits, but that’s usually not the primary motivator for legacy gifts – so get to them later. This makes people feel so good it can be socially contagious!
TRUE STORY about paying it forward: A coffee shop in Manitoba reported that one customer paid for his coffee and the person’s behind him at a drive-thru window. The next person did the same. This continued in an unbroken chain of 226 customers – a three-hour sequence of spontaneous generosity. And it’s not the only such example.
ACTION TIP: Ask your donor about a time someone did an unexpected good deed for them, and how it made them feel. Research shows receiving help increases the likelihood someone will want to help others, even strangers. It puts people in a giving mood, and is much more effective than centering your conversation on gift vehicles. Plus, it’s easier! You don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of irrevocable charitable gift annuities, charitable remainder annuity trusts and unitrusts, charitable lead trusts, or life estates. I’m not suggesting you avoid these topics; just saying you can offer a robust legacy giving program without becoming an expert on life income gifts.
2. PROSPECT broadly
It’s a mistake to think only rich people can make legacy gifts. It’s your job to let folks know they don’t have to be Bill Gates or MacKenzie Scott to leave a bequest.
TRUE STORY: Early in my fundraising career I had the privilege of talking with the then director of development of the YMCA in San Francisco. He told me something I never forgot: For every 50 bequests we receive, we generate an average of $1 million. That was 30 years ago, so I’d imagine the average is higher now. The point is simply that bequests, large and small, add up. One person might leave you $2,500; another $50,000, and so forth.
In fact, I’ve had more than one single school teacher leave a $1+ million gift. They didn’t live lavishly during their lives, or even make large gifts. But they saved their income and pension and were able to leave their homes or bank accounts to perpetuate their values.
ACTION TIP: Don’t only talk to major donors about legacy giving. Talk to anyone, and everyone, with a “heart connection” to your work. Love and loyalty shine through in:
Donors who make frequent donations.
Consistent mid-level donors.
Donors who submit matching gift forms to employers
Grateful users of services.
Former board and staff.
3. FOCUS on friendly, broadly accessible giving vehicles
Don’t make it seem complicated.
When you do, you may put off building a legacy program until you can hire an “expert.” You don’t need an expert to promote the most common types of nonprofit legacy gifts:
- Bequests in a will or trust
- Beneficiary designations in a retirement fund [e.g., IRA, 401(k), 403(b)]
- Beneficiary designation in a life insurance policy
- Outright gift of life insurance cash value [e.g., policy that’s no longer needed]
Bequests require your donor to visit an attorney, but you can help them out by providing sample language for their will or codicil. You can also install an online estate planning tool such as FreeWill or givingdocs (which recently entered into a strategic partnership with the planned giving experts at Stelter). Beneficiary designations generally require just a simple form folks can secure from their financial institution or insurance company – at no cost. So they’re well worth promoting.
ACTION TIP: Make it easy to find user-friendly information on your website so folks who are inspired to perpetuate their values can easily follow through. Include contact information for a real person, not “planned giving officer” – which already sounds complicated.
Let folks know that if they do make a legacy gift, you’d like to know now so you can enroll them in your Legacy Society. You don’t need to ask for proof. After all, these are revocable gifts. But you do want to know so you can nurture these donors and build strong relationships with them. Give your ‘society’ a name. Send regular updates that show other donor’s matured legacy gifts in action. Offer occasional seminars on topics of interest, both mission-related and financial/philanthropic planning related. Hold an annual appreciation event. Invite your supporters to tours, volunteer activities, house parties and open houses.
4. NURTURE those who show interest or make commitments
Plan to be donor-friendly over the lifetime of your legacy donor’s engagement with you.
The friendlier you are, the longer that engagement will be. And the more likely you’ll still be the beneficiary of their legacy at the time of their death. In fact, a study by Dr. Russell James found people who have had charity consistently in their estate plan for the long-term (say, 10+ years before death) leave, on average, 4 times the amount left by those who first added a charitable component within two years of death.
Spread the Word Summary
Sets the stage for your legacy ask by talking about your long-term vision. Reassure folks you’re in this for the long haul.
Legacy gifts can make a huge difference in the long-term health of your nonprofit. Don’t ignore them because they seem too complicated, or because you think they’re only for rich donors. They’re for anyone who shares the values your organization enacts, and who wants to see them continue into the future.
Just like any other kind of philanthropy, the biggest reasons folks don’t make legacy gifts is because (1) they aren’t persuaded they’re necessary and (2) they aren’t asked. Research from several studies reveals:
- Donors who received a letter directly asking them for a bequest were 17 times more likely to give a bequest than donors who were not asked.
- Donors who were asked and thanked gave twice as much as those who were not thanked.
- Donors who were cultivated (notes, letters, visits, etc.) after the thank-you gave 3 to 4 times as much.
- Donors surveyed by The Partnership for Philanthropic Planning found 70% of donors who made planned gifts did so because they were asked.
Start by finding out if your supporters have made provision for your organization in their estate plans. If not, ask them why not? And what would it take to get them to do so?
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi, activist
Legacy gifts need not be grand gestures. Simply show donors ways to live their values and gently shake the world.