Olivia Thomas, Executive Director of the Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center (SPARCC) opens a thick legal envelope. The return address lists the name of a law firm. Inside the letter states that SPARCC has been named in the will of deceased women. After sharing the good news with other SPARCC’s supporters, Olivia finds that no one knows her. When SPARCC researches its records, it learns that long ago the woman bought one five-dollar T-shirt. In her will, she gave SPARCC over $300,000.
Every nonprofit would like to receive similar news. While everyone wants to learn about a receiving a bequest, is it likely that your nonprofit will? The following test will help you rank you odds of success and improve them.
Rank your nonprofit from one to five on the following five characteristics, with a score of five being high.
1. You Consistently Ask for Bequests. Rank your nonprofit high here if you include bequest reminders in all your print and online communications. Reminders include the common, “remember us in your will,” and similar prompts. They also include sharing stories about people who made bequests and the impact of their gifts. Your newsletters and annual report include stories about estate gifts. They share how they helped you do your mission and how such gifts are easy to make. When a donor shares that you are in their estate plans, you ask them to share their story. Why is consistent marketing essential? Personal events such as births, retirements, job changes, and unexpected deaths trigger estate planning. Consistent reminders “coincidently” remind donors of the opportunity just as they are organizing plans with their lawyers. Give your organization a five if you consistently ask supporters to remember you in their estate plans and share how gifts will help.
Your rank: ___
2. You Communicate Permanence. You drive to your favorite restaurant. The parking lot is empty. It is dark inside. Are they on vacation, or out of business? Before donors include you in their estate plans, they must believe you are viable. What indicates permanence? Your news conveys your stability. Your requests for money are about opportunities, not bankruptcy threats. You share ambitious but realistic goals. Even if you are a brand new nonprofit organization, planning to merge, or face an uncertain future, you can still encourage bequests. In this case, ask people to remember the mission in their wills, i.e. “Remember homeless children in your will.” Why is viability important? When donors make their estate plans they prefer for them not to be executed until a distant future. Rank yourself high here is you communicate your permanence. Your rank: ___
3. You Raise Significant Individual Donations. Bequests are a natural bi-product of individual fundraising and a culture of philanthropy. (See this article.) On tour of a food bank, you overhear this conversation:
Volunteer: “I’m excited by the new plans I read about in the newsletter.”
Staff: “Yes, won’t it be great to be in a new warehouse with good lighting so we can see these darn expiration dates without squinting.”
Volunteer: “I just wish I had the money you need.”
Staff: “We really appreciate your donations. I couldn’t believe all the peanut butter you donated this month. That was wonderful, we filled every families’ basket!”
Volunteer: “Just wish I could do more.”
Staff: “I felt the same way. You know what I did? I left my IRA to the food bank. It’s not a lot, but it gives me great satisfaction.”
Volunteer: “Maybe I could do something like that, too.”
Bequests are a form of individual giving. They allow people, even with meager means, to make major gifts. In the dialog above, a staff member who works where donors are valued, proudly shares her commitment, and encourages others to follow. Rank yourself high here if your nonprofit constantly seeks new donors, engages them, and stewards their gifts.
Your rank: ___
4. Key Supporters Make Bequests. Give yourself a three here if you have included your nonprofit in your personal estate plans. Rank yourself a five if all of your board has made a bequest and if all of your staff has at least been asked—individually. Board and staff members play an important leadership role here. While large bequests are always welcome, any bequest is a sign of commitment that gives these supporters the ability to invite people to follow them with integrity.
Your rank: ___
5. You Serve Model Constituents. Mature couples without children make ideal bequest candidates. Therefore, nonprofits such as senior service groups, hospices, hospitals, and established universities will rank themselves high here. However, if you have a long list of different kinds of supporters you can also rank yourself moderately high on this characteristic. Young adults make bequests to demonstrate their commitments to causes. Mature couples without children love young people and the nonprofits that serve them. Adults remember organizations that changed their lives and whose work they respect. If you don’t serve ideal bequest candidates because of the service you provide, increase your score here by growing supporters—amongst them will be bequest makers.
Your rank: ___
Interpret Your Score:
17-25: If you haven’t been receiving requests, it is only a matter of time. Keep up the good work.
9-16: You are likely to receive bequests. Improve your success by increasing your score, especially with consistent marketing.
0-8: You may receive a notice of bequest, but it will be a matter of luck. To increase your success, work on the factors about to increase you success.
Bequests are an equal opportunity income source. One day, every one of your supporters will die. All of them can be asked to include your nonprofit in their estate plans. Here are some additional dos and don’ts—
Bequests Dos and Don’ts
1. Don’t wait until you have time to start a complete planned giving program to seek bequests. Do add “remember us in your will” or similar statements in all of your publications today.
2. Don’t forget to recognize bequest gifts. Do share stories to thank givers and inspire more gifts.
3. Don’t expect quick returns. Do set up a system, like an automatic savings account, to regularly request bequests.
4. Don’t forget to encourage your greatest fans. Do encourage your board, staff, and volunteers to remember your nonprofit in their estate plans. Do suggest “easy” gifts such as designating part of their life insurance to your institutions.
5. Do create a legacy society when you have a handful of people who have made gifts. Give them special treatment.