During the summer, many nonprofits—perhaps yours included—take a break from active fundraising. Your donors, staff and board members travel for vacations. Your staff and volunteers may be recovering from intensive spring fundraising events, or you may be taking a breather before the busy fall fundraising season.
If there are no major “to dos” on your summer fundraising calendar, consider using this time to build the basic infrastructure that will encourage donors to make planned gifts. These gifts will ultimately strengthen your organization’s long-term viability. A planned gift—also called a legacy gift or an estate gift—is a gift that a donor makes in his or her lifetime through an estate plan but which a non-profit receives upon the death of the donor. The most common form is a bequest designated in a donor’s Will or Trust.
The following four steps don’t take much time, but if you carry them out, you will have a solid foundation for your organization’s success with planned giving.
Step One: Develop a Planned Giving Case for Support
If you have an annual fundraising plan, you may already have a written case for support that explains to donors why your organization needs funding for the upcoming year. Consider writing a similar case for legacy gifts. A planned giving case for support focuses on why the specific mission of your organization will continue to need support into the future, even past the lifetimes of current donors. Some organizations may see themselves going out of business in 30, 40 or 50 years, when their mission has been accomplished. An organization whose sole mission has been to secure marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples in the U.S., for example, will not be able to present a strong planned giving case for support unless it changes its mission. But many of the issues our organizations tackle are so complex or entrenched (racism, homophobia, economic inequality) that it will take more than one lifetime to turn them around. Groups that work on those issues have a strong basis for making a case that they’ll need to exist in 2065.
If you can’t come up with convincing reasons that your organization will need to exist 50 years from now, you need not continue reading this article. But if you have compelling reasons that your group should still be around when most of us won’t, use them to develop a brief planned giving case statement. Here’s a link to an example from Earthjustice.
Step Two: Develop Bequest Language
The vast majority of legacy gifts are bequests made through Wills and Living Trusts. Any of your donors who haven’t yet created a Will or Living Trust should be encouraged to consider working with an estate planning attorney to create one or both of these vehicles to indicate how they want their assets distributed after their death. More than half of Americans die without a Will or Trust. The government will decide who receives their assets. You do your supporters a favor by explaining the benefits of having a Will or Trust.
Some of your donors, or their attorneys, may contact you for suggested language that they can include in a Will or Living Trust to designate a gift to your organization. It’s simple to put that kind of language together and have it ready for such inquiries. The specific language will refer to one of several types of gifts, including the following:
- A gift of a specific amount or asset
- A gift of a percentage of an estate
- A contingent gift that’s dependent on something else happening (usually a spouse or child passing away before the donor)
- A residual gift: your organization will receive what’s left in the estate after other specific gifts are made
When you create sample bequest language, make sure to include your organization’s legal name and address so that it’s easy for an executor or trustee to contact you. Here’s an example of sample bequest language for a percentage of an estate:
“I give to (insert legal name of organization), a (insert state) not-for-profit corporation that is recognized as exempt from tax under Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, with its principal office located at (insert address), ___ percent of the total value of my estate to be used for its general purposes.”
Step Three: Create a Planned Giving Page On Your Organization’s Website
When donors are creating or revising an estate plan, you want to make it easy for them to get the information they need to include your organization in that plan. A simple page on your organization’s website can encourage supporters to remember your organization in their estate plan and provide the bequest language they will need for their Wills or Living Trusts. Including your organization’s legal name, tax identification number and address will be helpful for donors who want to name your group as the beneficiary of their retirement accounts or life insurance policies.
Step Four: Form a Legacy Society
Not all donors are going to inform you when they include your non-profit in their estate plan. Most probably won’t: many consider estate planning a private matter; others will not want to raise your expectations in case they change their plans. But including a non-profit in a Will or Living Trust, or naming an organization as a beneficiary of a retirement account or insurance policy, is a significant decision, one that you’ll want to acknowledge if possible. One way to encourage donors to tell you they have included your organization in their plans is to form a legacy society. Let your universe of supporters know—by posting information on your website and in your newsletter, as well as through specific emails and possibly paper mailings—that you’ve created a legacy society to honor donors who have remembered your group in their estate plans and to encourage others to do the same. Choose a name for your legacy society that will resonate with your constituents and donors. Point Blue Conservation, for example, which studies bird populations, calls theirs the Tern Society. Earthjustice’s legacy society is called the Evergreen Council. Develop “benefits” for members, such as acknowledgement in the organization’s annual report or newsletters, invitations to special gatherings, and special communications for society members.
These four basic steps to set up a planned giving program will not in and of themselves result in a slew of new gift intentions. That will take building solid relationships with your donors over time, encouraging their annual gifts, keeping them informed of your organization’s work to achieve your shared goals, and regularly encouraging them to consider making a legacy gift. But setting up this infrastructure will open the door for your supporters to make estate gifts and to inform you about them. Once you start learning of intended legacy gifts, you will want to do all you can to further deepen your relationships with these very special supporters.