Planned Giving Power Words That Work

granddaughter whispers into grandfather's ear

We get a lot of questions about making the ask. And they usually  go something like this: “Are there any magic words for planned giving? Something I can say to help a prospect donate their IRA, or leave us a bequest?”

While the planned giving world isn’t exactly the wizarding world of Harry Potter, believe it or not, there really are some magic words — “power words,” if you prefer — that can make bringing home the endowment bacon a lot more likely.

But making the magic happen takes more than just knowing the right words.

You also need to know:

  • the science (not magic!) behind planned giving power words
  • how (and when) to use these “magic words”
  • which words not to use

Let’s dive in.

The Most Powerful Words

Let’s start with the big kahuna, the real “abracadabra” of the planned giving world: The two most powerful words.

You already know them. In fact, using them properly is something we’ve been “preaching” about since Day One.

But chances are you’re still not aware of the full power of these words — which means you may not be using them to their full effect.

Are you ready?

The two most powerful planned giving words are “thank you.”

 “Thank You.” The Forgotten Words.

That’s right. It couldn’t be simpler. And — sorry, Potter fans — there’s no real magic behind these planned giving power words. Just science and emotion.

In fact, there’s plenty of science around the benefits of gratitude in general. Numerous studies have shown grateful people tend to be healthier, live longer, and are more philanthropically inclined.

Science even shows we’re hardwired for gratitude — a white paper published by Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center points out that “Animals as diverse as fish, birds, and vampire bats engage in ‘reciprocal altruism’ activities— behaviors that one animal performs to help another member of their species.”

Researchers have also found that people like to be thanked. A study tracking more than 40 neonatal intensive care unit teams found that expressions of gratitude — especially directly from a mother — improved team performance and information-sharing across the board. Psychologists think it’s because feeling appreciated also makes us feel like we’re important to someone (or something) else — that we’ve been noticed, or “seen” in a busy world.

But wait, there’s more. Yet another study found that people who just witnessed expressions of gratitude were also inspired to work harder.

So what does all this mean for your nonprofit?

What we’ve been telling you all along: Say “thank you” to your donors. Do it in person. Do it with a phone call or a note. And where appropriate, do it publicly — on a social media page, in your newsletter, in a special announcement — so that you can inspire others to step up to the plate.

Be prompt, be personal, and put some thought into it, too, so that it does not come off as disingenuous. Case in point: The canned “thank-you” emails most political organizations send out. They’re often forced, overly flowery, and way out of proportion to the gift. A $5 donation, for instance, does not deserve multiple, gushing thank-you emails and texts — and savvy donors know this.

The ‘Thank-You’ Ask

We’ve all been taught never to combine “thank you” with an ask. Most of the time, that’s good advice — see the comment above, about being disingenuous. The last thing you want is for a donor to feel manipulated, or to endanger your relationship with supporters.

But there are times when “thank you” and “would you consider making another gift?” go hand-in-hand. Fundraisers who study retention rates say that thank-you asks — specifically, an ask to become a regular, repeat donor — actually build loyalty, not detract from it.

Our best advice? Don’t be afraid of the thank-you ask, but use it sparingly. If you work at maintaining a good relationship with your donors, you should be able to tell who will be receptive to one, and who won’t. And you should have a good handle on your retention rates, too, so that you can track changes and causation over time.

Keep It Simple

Our friend Russell James, professor of Charitable Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, has done a lot of research on phrases and words that work to promote planned giving.

And one of his biggest takeaways backs up something we’ve said all along: Using technical language and industry lingo — “board speak” — drastically reduces the chances that a prospective donor will be interested in making a planned gift.

In a survey he released in 2014, 23 percent of respondents said they would never be interested in a “charitable remainder trust.”

Yet 36 percent said they’d be interested in gift planning right now if a solicitation were worded like this:

“Get an immediate tax deduction and still receive income from your investments for the rest of your life by making a gift where you control the investment of the assets, but anything left over goes to charity at your death.”

Survey responses to the term “charitable gift annuity” were even more dramatic. “Receive a tax deduction and make a gift that pays you income for life” triggered 50 percent of respondents to say they’d be interested immediately. Talk about planned giving power words!

Yet if the wording included the term “charitable gift annuity,” just 23 percent were interested — and 19 percent said they’d never be interested!

The bottom line is that formal, legal, contract and industry-insider language is stuffy. It’s not reader-friendly, and it’s definitely not donor-friendly. As James writes, “Philanthropy is a social act using the mechanisms of family bonding … family-social relationships, not market-contract relationships” are what encourage people to give.

In other words, speak to your donors like you would speak to your mom, grandmother, or favorite uncle. Use everyday language. Keep it simple. And keep it authentic, too: Don’t try to get away with a “fake” donor story in your newsletter or appeal — even if it’s based on elements from actual donations. As James writes, “The ‘true stories’ in direct mail are often a conglomeration of bits and pieces of stories from a number of different people, perhaps with a dash of creative license exercised by the writer. They feel contrived because they are. Prospective donors have highly tuned B.S. detectors. So why even bother serving up inauthenticity?”

Words That Work. And Words That Don’t

In marketing, there’s a term we use: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” It’s a catchphrase that means “focus on the benefits, not on the features.” Sure, some will want to know that their steak is exactly 12 oz. of USDA prime beef that was grass fed and ethically raised.

But nine times out of 10, hungry customers will be far more interested if you get them thinking about how that steak is going to smell, look, and taste. That emotional response is your “sizzle” — and in planned giving, it really pays off.

In some forms of marketing, negative emotional responses pay off, too. But in planned giving, we want to avoid negatives. And one of the biggest negatives in our industry is “death language.”

Unfortunately, that’s a fact lost on many nonprofits. As consultant and copywriter extraordinaire Tom Ahern says of most planned giving newsletters, “Oh, goody! Look what’s come in the mail, honey. It’s the latest issue of our death brochure. Round up the kids!”

And James’ research has shown at least a 10 percent drop in interest whenever “death reminders” are included in planned giving language. In a Charitable Gift Annuity description, for instance, he found language that reads “if the annuity holder lives up to different ages” is far more effective than “depending on the age when the annuity holder dies.”

There are more subtle examples, of course — like using the planned giving power word “gift” instead of “donation.” Whereas “donation” brings to mind a cold and formal financial transaction, the word “gift” brings on the warm fuzzies. “Gift” is associated with a positive emotion — birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, Hanukah gifts. People love gifts, whether they’re giving or receiving. And as James points out, “Charitable giving is rewarding (like receiving money) …. But uniquely involves oxytocin-rich social attachment brain regions (used in maternal and romantic love).”

And if you combine the word “gift” with another positive term, such as “pays you income,” it’s like a Black Friday sale at Target! People love a good value. And despite Americans’ generally altruistic intentions,  we love to get something in return for a donation. By emphasizing the fact that a gift is going to pay income, you’re capitalizing on its value.

In other words, you’re selling the sizzle — not the steak.

So what other terms should you avoid, and what “magic words” should you replace them with?

Don't SaySay This Instead
BequestA Gift In Your Will
Charitable Remainder UnitrustA Gift That Pays You Income
Charitable Remainder Annuity TrustA Gift That Pays You Income
Charitable Gift AnnuityA Gift That Pays Income for Life
Enter into a contract with our charityMake a Gift
Retained Life EstateDonate Your Home But Use It for Life

The Takeaway

Language matters. Effective planned giving marketing ditches technical and “negative” terms in favor of words that evoke positive emotions. It relies on everyday language — the kind we’d use in a conversation with Grandma — and not industry-speak. And the planned giving power words that work the most “magic” are almost always the simplest.

If you’re ready to transform lackluster, stodgy communications into a highly effective planned giving marketing campaign, you must:

  • Say thank you, and mean it!
  • Sell the sizzle, not the steak — promote benefits
  • Write as if you’re addressing a friend or family member
  • Avoid technical terms — don’t use industry or board (bored!) room language
  • Oversimplify — you’re not writing for gift planners or accountants
  • Use words and phrases that trigger an emotional response
  • Avoid using the word “death”!

And if you don’t have the staff or the time to do it yourself, we’ll be glad to help. Give us a call at 800-490-7090 or drop us a line at

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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