Asking for Bequests


bue bar


Published March 27, 2013


I was thinking about Steve Mourning the other day. He was a Partner in the firm. He died two years ago. Too young.

He wrote a piece for us (and our clients) that is as relevant today as it was the day he wrote it two years ago.

It’s called Asking For Bequests. It describes where and how to start a bequest program and provides a systematic messaging process. It includes eight compelling PSs you should add to your letters to help promote bequests.

 Even the most sophisticated planned giving programs report that bequests account for approximately seventy percent (70%) of their planned gifts and planned giving dollars. Even if your organization has a small staff and few active board members, you can still ask for and receive planned gifts.

To start a planned giving effort, begin with the planned gift that is the easiest to ask for and deal with. It is the charitable bequest.

A bequest is a very flexible planned gift. Donors can revoke a bequest or change its provisions easily with a codicil or amendment to a trust.

Since a bequest is almost always revocable, it is important to remember that stewardship of bequests involves a continuing and structured relationship. You must maintain on on-going cultivation that must be sustained with the donor to assure you receive the bequest.

Because bequests often become the largest gifts individual donors ever make to charity, there has been quite a bit of research about the process and who make the best probable donors. We find that affluent, better educated donors, who are or have been married and have children, are your best potential bequestors.

But here’s what is interesting. Affluence is the least predictive attribute. People with modest estates often leave charitable bequests and should certainly be encouraged and be given the opportunity to do so.

Where to Start?

Before you send that eloquent letter asking for an annual gift, you should make certain two things are in place. Both are based on the presumption that you will receive a gift in response to your letter.  

First, there is a prompt thank-you letter acknowledging and substantiating your receipt of the gift. Second, you have a system— usually known as your Donor Information System— that will facilitate gift accounting and acknowledgement.

Planned giving, even simple bequests, requires important preparation, also. You want to be ready to quickly accept and process requests for information and notices of gifts, whether they’re expectancies or matured (when you receive the money).

Once you have in place donor-centered policies and procedures for accepting planned gifts, and a system to respond to established inquiries, it’s time to encourage friends and supporters to consider your organization in their estate plans. Repetition and brevity mark good bequest messaging.

That’s not to say you won’t be using articles in publications and other messaging tactics to get the word out. You will. But, the core effort to encourage bequests is to deliver simple messages when your probable donors are thinking about estate planning.

Most probably, they won’t call you to say, “I’m thinking about writing my will, can you tell me how to include a bequest for you?” So, you have to pique their interest when it’s top of mind.

To do this, you create a multi-channel, systematic messaging process. It should include most or all of the ideas in this checklist:

• At least once a year, focus a letter to everyone on your mailing list inviting them to consider making a bequest to your organization. The best theme for such a letter is to relate the impact a bequest can have on your programs and those you serve.

• Include an article in every publication produced by your organization about some aspect of a bequest. Think, for instance, about sample wording for a will that has a bequest to your program, or a profile of how a realized bequest is impacting your service to your constituency. 

• If a service is the subject of an article in your publication that has benefited from a bequest or other gift support, put a distinctive graphic element in the layout of the article that will attract attention.

• Share anecdotes about bequests made to your organization and how those gifts transformed the donor and those organizations. Or how a bequest could impact your service.

• On all pledge and gift/response forms, include two key sentences with checkboxes:

( ) “Please provide me with additional information about making a charitable bequest.”
( ) “I have made charitable bequest in my will or living trust to benefit (your organization).”

All gift acknowledgment and substantiation letters should include a postscript. It is generally accepted that postscript actually attracts more attention than a letter’s body copy. Create “standard bequest messages” to use as postscripts. Here are some examples:

• Another way to strengthen our service to this community is a charitable bequest. Please remember us in your will or living trust.

• Many of our most helpful gifts come from the estates of our generous donors. Please consider a bequest to us when you plan your estate.

• Charitable bequests can reduce taxes and help you benefit your family and others through your will or living trust. We’ve learned about these various programs and would love to share our ideas with you. Please call me today about how we might help you.

• The program your wonderful gift will support has recently received a gift through a donor’s will. If you’d like to learn how you can do the same, call me at (XXX) XXX-XXXX.

• We recently received a wonderful gift through a donor’s living trust. It is a magnificent legacy for the donor and for us. The sadness is that we didn’t know it was coming and I didn’t get to say “thank you” as I sincerely want to do. Please let me know if you have a bequest for us in your will. I would like to thank you and tell you how your funds will be used.

• A gift that transforms our organization or one of our programs is a wonderful philanthropic expression. These are often made by donors in their wills or living trusts. Please let us know if you’ve included us in your planning, or call me to discuss how you might do this.

• I’m often frustrated when donors make a gift to us that we didn’t know about. I would like to have expressed our deep gratitude. Please let me know while I can still write you with our thanks if you’ve included us in your estate giving.

In fundraising brochures and literature you produce, include sentences and phrases that stand alone and encourage bequests. Examples are:

• “Remember (your organization) in your will or living trust”;

• “A gift through your will or living trust will continue your support of (your organization) as an important legacy in our community”;

• “Many of our donors use their wills or living
trusts to make their most generous gifts, please remember us when you create yours”; and

• “A charitable bequest is an excellent way to create a lasting memorial”

In any material which calls attention to bequests, be certain that a staff member’s name, address, e-mail, and telephone number is easy to spot when reading the reference. Convenience is crucial once any interest is piqued.

Create distinctive recognition devices for bequest donors, such as special nametags, lapel pins, cuff links, or medallions to wear at your events. This can be a part of a formal recognition society for planned gifts or just evidence of very special status in the life of the organization. These devices, along with plaques and certificates become endorsements of your program whenever they’re displayed.

Seek the permission of those who have made bequest provisions to tell others— through your publications and your conversations— about their generous intent. This is another form of endorsement of your bequest program and a great secondary way to say thank you for their generosity.

Create a “Special Legacy Recognition Area” in a prominent place in your organization. A high traffic area for the public is best. Recognize bequests and other planned gifts, both expected and received. Give donors who advise you of bequests to you a small replica of the plaque you place in this area. Do the same for families of donors whose gifts mature.

Steven L. Mourning, FA
(Steve died on July 20, 2010. Far too young)