Making the Most Difficult Ask—Legacy Giving

It’s a conversation that no one really wants to have.

What will happen to those regular donations after your donors pass away?

You’ve worked hard to build a solid relationship with each of your donors, but sometimes life happens and active donors become in memoriam donors. It’s a sensitive subject, as no one likes talking about death. We’re all invincible and will live forever, right? At least that’s what those kids with skateboards tell me. However, if you don’t have conversations with your donors about leaving legacy gifts, your nonprofit could miss out on an extra avenue to support your mission.

In the case of some organizations, especially political action committees and watchdog groups that receive a significant portion from a single donor, the failure to plan ahead can be detrimental. Planning for estate gifts should be one cog in your overall fundraising gifts, but it often can be left out because of the difficulty of making the ask and the sensitivity of the topic.

According to Guidestar, almost 70 percent of Americans give to charity during their lifetime, but fewer than 10 percent create legacy gifts. So start the conversation! Know that this talk isn’t one you should have with all donors—(i.e. “Thanks for the $20 gift. Please include us in your will!”), but it is one you’ll likely want to have with donors that you have an established relationship with.

These three steps can help include legacy donations in your fundraising plan.

Know the Law

Part of the issue is that people don’t want to handle dealing with the legal mumbo-jumbo of wills, trusts and other aspects of passing along property after a death. Understanding how the inheritance laws work in your state can make a big difference when talking to potential legacy donors.

For example, the size of an estate can have large implications on taxes. Only one percent of estates have to pay federal estate taxes. In 2013, the first $5.25 million of an estate was exempt from taxes and estates can give away an unlimited about to a surviving spouse or a charity.

You don’t have to go to law school (please, save yourself the pain), but learn the basics about how estate law works on both the state and federal level and it will help your conversations.

Prove You’re Worth the Investment

The point of legacy giving is knowing that the organization will be there doing good work long after the donor is gone. Because estate gifts are often sizable in nature, donors want to make sure the impact of their gifts will live on, even if they may not. Be open about the financial model and what a legacy gift will mean to you. Have a plan that you can share with potential donors stating how you plan to use their gift. It helps to have a wish list of projects and ways your budget can grow to accommodate a large gift.

You should also develop a plan to recognize those who leave you a legacy gift while they are still alive. Acknowledge their commitment to your organization, and in doing so, it might spur other people to follow the footsteps of their good deed.

Start the Talk Early

Lastly, start the talk early. Don’t wait until one of your donors is celebrating their 80th birthday or becomes ill. In fact, don’t limit your conversations to just elderly, wealthy or long-time donors. Talk to younger people who may be a little more cash-strapped. These people might not be in a position to make a donation immediately, but they would be more able to set aside a gift through their insurance policy. As time passes, continue to stay in touch with them and update the gift as necessary or as life happens—whether it’s through marriage (or unmarriage), children and grandchildren.

Side story: This is in fact where I fit in. I am not that old, but don’t feel like I am in a position to make a sizable donation to my nonprofit of choice. But I have a great life insurance policy. So in addition to setting aside money to cover debt, college funds for my nieces and nephews, and life, I’ve set aside a decent chunk to go toward a nonprofit I’ve been involved with for more than a decade. I hope I don’t make the gift any time soon, but just like insurance, it’s good to know it’s there.

Once someone pledges a legacy gift, be sure to treat them like you would any other donor. Maintain the relationship because wills can be changed, after all. The reason they want to set aside a gift is because they trust the organization and want to see it continue to blossom. And by setting aside a legacy gift, they can make sure it lasts long after they are gone.



Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

December 11, 2014

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