May 23, 2023

Find Out: How to Increase Your Success With Bequests

Olivia Thomas, Executive Director of the Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center (SPARCC), opened a thick legal envelope. The return address lists the name of a law firm. Inside, the letter stated that a deceased woman had named SPARCC in her will. At SPARCC, no one knows her. When the nonprofit researched its records, it discovered that the woman bought a T-shirt. In her will, she gave SPARCC over $300,000.

Every nonprofit would like to receive similar news. While you want to receive bequests or other planned gifts, is it likely your nonprofit will? The following test will help you rank your success odds and give you optional chances to improve them.

The Bequest Test

When we work with nonprofits to increase their bequest success, we find these five factors drive their success.

Rank your nonprofit on them from one to five, with a score of five being high. Fair warning it’s a tough test, but taking it will give you a dozen ideas on how to increase your success with bequests. (Watch Planned Giving to find out how planned giving effort pays off.)

1. You Ask for Bequests.

Your nonprofit will rank high here if you include “remember us in your will” in your print and online communications.

Bump up your score if:

  • You share hero stories about people who make legacy gifts and the impact of their contributions.
  • Your newsletters and annual report. Include stories about estate gifts.
  • You share how legacy gifts help you do your mission and how legacy gifts are easy to make.
  • When a donor tells you that you are in their estate plans, you ask them if they are willing to share their story.

Your rank: ___

2. You Market Bequest Opportunities Consistently.

Give yourself a top score here if you regularly ask for bequests, not just once or twice a year or –when you get one. Instead, you have a planned gift marketing plan.

Why is consistent marketing essential? Personal events such as births, retirements, job changes, and unexpected deaths trigger estate planning. Constant reminders “coincidently” remind donors of the opportunity just as they organize plans with their lawyers. Give your organization a five if you consistently–all twelve months of the year- ask supporters to remember you in their estate plans and share how gifts will help.

Your rank: ___

3. You Communicate Permanence.

Rank yourself high here is you communicate your permanence.

What do I mean? 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. You share ambitious but realistic goals.

Why is viability important? When donors make their estate plans, they prefer that they be executed in the distant future.

Note: 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 your mission in their wills, e.g., “Remember homeless children in your will.”

Your rank: ___

4. You Raise Individual Donations and Engage New Donors.

Rank yourself high here if your nonprofit constantly seeks new donors, engages them, and stewards their gifts.

Here’s why: bequests are a natural byproduct of individual fundraising and a culture of philanthropy. (Download a free chapter of Karen’s Book, Let’s Raise Nonprofit Millions Together, to learn more about how to create a culture of philanthropy.)

Imagine you overhear this conversation at a food bank:

Volunteer: “I’m excited by the new plans  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 appreciate your donations. The case of peanut butter was fantastic!”

Volunteer: “Just wish I could do more.”

Staff: “I felt the same way. Do you know what I did? I left my IRA to this organization. It’s not a lot, but it gives me great satisfaction.”

Volunteer: “Maybe I could do something like that, too.”

Bequests 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.

Your rank: ___

5. Existing Legacy Gifts.

Give yourself a three here if your will includes your nonprofit. (Watch: How to Get More Planned Gifts.) Rank yourself a five if 100 percent of your board members have made a legacy gift and all of your staff has been asked—individually to make one.

Board and staff members play an essential leadership role here. While you always welcome high-dollar bequests,  promises of a legacy gift reflect commitment. And they are credibility tools that empower people to ask their peers to join them.

Your rank: ___

Interpret Your Score:

These standards are high–so be inspired if you score low. The Bequest Test helps you know what to do and how to get started.

17-25: If you haven’t been receiving requests, it is only a matter of time. Keep up the fantastic work.

9-16: You are likely to receive bequests. To increase your success, get more points on the Bequest Test.

0-8: You may receive a notice of legacy, but it will be a matter of luck.

No matter your score, to increase your success, work on the task to increase your success.

Dos and Don’ts to Increase Your Success with Bequests

Bequests are an equal-opportunity income source. One day, every one of your supporters will die. You can ask everyone to include your nonprofit in their estate plans. Here are some additional 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 to all 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. Set up a system, like an automatic savings account, to regularly request legacy gifts.

4. Remember to encourage your greatest fans. Encourage your board, staff, and volunteers to remember your nonprofit in their estate plans. 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.

6. Don’t do this on your own. Reach out to Karen for help.

More Resources

Karen’s Nonprofit CEO Library

Get answers. Check out this collection of resources for nonprofit leaders about the sector’s common leadership challenges, including board involvement.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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