How to Launch a Simple Bequest Program

Coffee mug with note pad reading what legacy do I want to leave?

Bequests are the most popular planned gift. They're also the easiest to receive. And a bequest program is the perfect way to segue into closing other gifts.

Bequests Make Up 92% of all planned gifts!

Planned Giving, at its most basic, is simply a gift made from a donor’s estate to a nonprofit. And of all the planned gifts (or “legacy gifts”) your donor can make, the simplest one for them to give (and for you to receive) is a bequest.

That’s because creating a bequest is as easy as naming a nonprofit as a beneficiary of a retirement plan or life insurance policy, or writing language into a will that, in essence, states, “Your nonprofit will get a certain dollar amount from my estate.”

That simplicity is why bequests make up a whopping 90% of all planned gifts!

It’s also why a bequest program is an absolute must for your nonprofit, whether your organization is a massive, global NPO or a bare-bones local charity. If it helps to think about in terms of a value proposition, look at it this way:

Of all the planned gift vehicles, a bequest program requires the least amount of effort—but provides the maximum amount of return!

Benefits of a Bequest Program

Although legacy gifts can take decades to realize, there’s one immediate benefit of starting a bequest program: The legitimacy that a planned giving program lends to a nonprofit.

Your supporters believe in your mission and want to help, but they also want to ensure they’re not throwing their money away on a lost cause. A planned giving program—even if it’s focused only on bequests—sends a signal that says, “We’re here for the long haul. We take our mission seriously.”

Building a bequest program also allows you to build up an endowment. Annual gifts are great for keeping the lights on, but relying on them puts nonprofits on a roller-coaster cycle of feast or famine. By directing a portion of your bequest income to an endowment, you can build a base to fund future programs that can also serve as a buffer during lean times. It’s like being able to contribute to a savings account, rather than living paycheck to paycheck.

You’ll also be opening the door to much larger gifts than an annual campaign generally sees. Planned gifts are often 200 to 300 times the size of a donor’s largest annual gift. Even nonprofits that just scratch the surface with a simple bequest program are earning significantly more than those that don’t have any legacy program at all. That’s because planned giving programs open up a much larger range of giftable assets than just cash—and those assets are often among a donor’s most valuable. A bequest can be made with stocks, bonds, insurance policies, valuable collections, retirement accounts, real estate … almost anything of value that can be re-sold or invested is fair game.

And finally, research by our friend Russell James (and others) shows that planned giving programs increase annual giving — so even just a simple bequest program will bring in more money overall!

So what are you waiting for? It’s high time to start accepting bequests. The good news is that setting up a bequest program is as simple as it is effective—and we’re going to show you how to do just that, using actionable steps you can implement immediately.

As Simple As 1, 2, 3, 4

1. The Board

Support from the top is essential for your success. Begin with a bequest education campaign. 

The first step is getting your board on board, and that generally means starting with the board chair and getting their support. If your nonprofit has already received a bequest, that’s a great way to launch the conversation. Regardless, the chair should be among the first to make a planned gift, setting an example for the others to follow.

You’ll need to convince board members of the logic inherent in having a bequest program, as well as persuade them to set aside some marketing dollars for consistent ad campaigns to get the word out. This could take some time and effort, and require you to launch a dedicated campaign to win their hearts and minds. You may need to meet with board members one by one, or hold a group presentation followed by a Q&A.  In our experience, resistance to a planned giving program—especially a simple one that accepts only bequests—can usually be chalked up to two things:

  • A lack of familiarity with planned giving and its benefits.
  • Fear of the unknown: Gains are deferred, so return on investment is hard to measure.

If either of these are the case, we have resources that can help.

2. The Logistics

You need to set up systems around gift acceptance to avoid problems down the road.

Before making your bequest program public, it’s smart to build policies around gift acceptance, endowment, and investment. These logistics ensure there’s a system in place to navigate the types of assets you can accept, how a gift can be structured, and how it will be invested/used. Among the questions to consider when setting your gift acceptance policy:

  • What is your policy on restricted gifts?
  • What is your policy on naming rights?
  • How will you handle anonymous gifts?

Things can get especially tricky if you don’t have an acceptance policy in place. Some donors may wish to place finicky restrictions on their gifts, or demand a building be named after them in exchange for their donation—complicating the donation far beyond its value.

3. The Prospects

Many of them are already on your donor list. The rest aren't hard to find. 

Who are your bequest prospects? Luckily, you don’t need to start this process from scratch: Some of your best prospects for planned gifts are already on your donor list. (You do keep a donor list, right?) You just need to properly segment it.

Here are a few things to look for:

  • The most engaged supporters/donors (folks who volunteer, make frequent donations, and show up at events).
  • Repeat donors (folks who’ve given at least 10 to 15 times, no matter the amount).
  • Supporters age 60-plus (they’re thinking about their legacy)
  • Childless supporters (the most likely of all groups to make a gift)
  • Board members and other leaders

When segmenting your list, don’t rely just on indicators such as age and wealth—some of your best prospects are neither wealthy nor in their golden years. 

4. Marketing

People can't give to your program if they don't know it exists.

The next step is creating a strategic, intentional, consistent planned giving marketing campaign focused on bequests. That means developing a 12-month plan (download a sample at the link); creating a simple planned giving page for your website; and creating a legacy case statement that will touch on your mission history, list successes, detail future needs and challenges, and motivate your prospects.

Keep in mind that a legacy case statement is not the same as your nonprofit’s mission statement. As mentioned above, a legacy case statement just touches on your organization’s history, and it doesn’t describe all your programs and services in detail. It tells donors what you’re doing, who you’re doing it for, why you’re different, the challenges your organization faces, and why, specifically, your organization needs a legacy giving program for the future.  For instance, “As our nonprofit grows and technology changes, we will need to update our computer system. We’ll also need the funding to expand our reach into more underserved neighborhoods.”

When creating your marketing plan, start with the low-hanging fruit: existing publications and channels where you can announce or mention your new bequest program. Think out of the box here, and include things such as:

  • email taglines
  • existing social media pages
  • existing newsletters
  • outgoing voicemail messages
  • annual reports
  • main organization web page

You can also write a press release announcing your new bequest program, and send it to local media outlets such as newspapers and radio/tv stations. Even a brief mention on the local news could do wonders.

Now let’s talk about developing new marketing materials. Donor education is important here, even with something as simple as a bequest. Your website should be easy to find, and include easy-to-find articles, videos and graphics that explain how a bequest works. Likewise, your outreach and leave-behind materials should include educational one-pagers and/or brochures.

Next, add in e-blasts (emails), postcards, and other direct-mail pieces. While a digital ad component is important, numerous studies show a much higher response rate with direct mail. Translation: Your donors are sick of spam in their inboxes.

When creating your messaging, keep in mind that you’ll need to adjust it to each segment of prospects. For example, a prospect in her 40s won’t relate to a postcard encouraging retirees to donate an unneeded IRA or life-insurance policy.

Finally, establish a legacy society, and use it to recognize donors who’ve committed to making a bequest. A legacy society will aid your bequest marketing through word-of-mouth; acts as an incentive to give since membership is exclusive to donors; and serves as a way to keep your most committed supporters in the loop.

Final Considerations

If annual gifts are about keeping the lights on, then planned gifts are about keeping the mission alive far into the future. In other words, immediacy vs. legacy. And bequests are so tightly linked to the word “legacy” that the Merriam-Webster dictionary even includes the word in its definition:

“A gift by will especially of money or other personal property: BEQUEST.”

But “legacy” is a very personal thing, too; one that cannot be measured in dollars alone. “Legacy” can also be defined as the lasting impact of a person’s actions throughout their life. And in order to tap into that, you need to engage with your donor on a personal level so that they become not just a supporter, but feel like they are part of your nonprofit’s “family.” Your most engaged donors, therefore, are the ones most likely to make your organization part of their personal legacy. That’s why donor stewardship is paramount to a successful planned giving program.

And speaking of stewardship, a solid thank-you policy is essential. Not only do your donors deserve and appreciate prompt, sincere recognition for their gifts (after all, you wouldn’t be here without them), numerous studies show that people who witness a philanthropic act are more likely to give themselves. In other words, public recognition leads to more gifts! Thanking a donor within 24 hours is ideal; within a week at the very latest. So call, visit or send a card first, and then follow up with a public expression of gratitude.

Last, but definitely not least: Engage with the types of people who can send donors your way. That means wealth advisors, accountants, estate attorneys … even other local charities (a rising tide lifts all ships) and community foundations. Once you’ve established a relationship and your contact knows your organization accepts bequests, they can direct philanthropically minded clients to your nonprofit to consider their next donation

Now get to work on your bequests program, because the longer you delay, the more gifts you miss! And if you really want to see results, add The Legacy Planner to your planned giving webpage.

Then, once the bequests start rolling in and you see how easy it is to maintain a planned giving program, you can start to accept other gift vehicles, like charitable gift annuities, charitable remainder trusts, gifts of real estate, donor advised funds, and more.

Trust us — once you get started, you’ll wonder why you waited so long.

All of our blogs, products and services are proudly conceived, created, reviewed, and disseminated by real humans — not A.I. (artificial “intelligence.”)

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