Prospect Research for Planned Giving: 5 Fundamental Steps

Prospect Research for Planned Giving: 5 Fundamental Steps

Planned gifts can be hard to predict—donors may never notify you when they create one, meaning you can’t thank them, get to know them, or learn why they decided to give in the first place. This also makes it harder to identify characteristics that might signal other planned giving prospects.

For many nonprofits, planned giving isn’t a top strategic priority. It might be casually promoted in one-on-one conversations with prospects and donors who’ve already given generously to your mission. But are you broadcasting it as a giving option and supporting it with easy-to-use donor-facing tools?

Planned giving represents a huge opportunity for nonprofits. It can help you stabilize and diversify future revenue, buffer against year-to-year economic turbulence, and foster stronger relationships with donors. By prioritizing planned giving and building a wider-reaching program, you can tap into significant benefits.

To do this, you’ll need to know how to identify potential planned giving donors so that you can fundraise efficiently and guide your program to success. Planned giving prospect research is similar to other types of donor research but has its own unique set of markers and best practices to keep in mind. We break it down into five fundamental steps.

1. Identify existing planned giving donors among your base.

If you have a large or especially passionate base of donors, there’s a good chance that one or more of them have already created planned gifts for your nonprofit. Your first step is to identify them, and this is most easily done by sending a simple survey.

This survey should include questions that give you a quick sense of donors’ capacity, propensity, and motivation to give. Uncovering this information will be helpful for further refining your prospect research. Typical questions include:

  • How have you supported our mission in the past? (Here, you can ask if donors have previously given non-cash gifts like bequests, stocks, or gifts from donor-advised funds.)
  • How has our nonprofit been a part of your life? (Include options for donation, volunteering, sharing social media posts, etc.)
  • When did you first become involved, and why?
  • If you haven’t already, would you consider including a gift to our mission in your will?
  • Are you married?
  • How many children or grandchildren do you have?

Transparency is key when asking these kinds of questions. Explain why you’re asking for this information—to help plan for your organization’s future by building a more robust planned giving program. And once you’ve collected responses, analyze them by sorting respondents into various categories. For donors who have already created planned gifts, segment them further by age or loyalty/level of involvement.

Not sure how to get started? Our donor survey template has got you covered.

2. Research these donors, major donors, and other top prospects.

Now that you have a more targeted list of confirmed and potential planned giving donors, dig deeper by conducting additional prospect research. Aim to learn more about the various factors that could influence their giving habits, such as:

  • Demographics
  • Personal backgrounds, such as careers and personal connections
  • Giving history to your nonprofit
  • Wealth markers
  • Philanthropic tendencies revealed through involvement with other organizations
  • Giving motivations, uncovered in one-on-one conversations or inferred through the various data points above

As you research, remember that the motivations that can spur planned gifts are slightly different from those that you might typically look for when seeking cash gifts. Planned giving is unique in that it allows donors to give larger gifts than they otherwise could during their lifetimes and that it leaves a high-impact legacy rather than immediately funding projects or campaigns. In other words, a donor who might not have otherwise been on your radar could have the ability and desire to leave their largest-ever gift via a bequest, but only if you think to ask them for it.

The FreeWill guide to planned gift prospecting further explains the most important markers and motivations to look for.

From here, expand your research to encompass existing major donors of cash gifts and top prospects. Review what you know about them through the lens of planned giving, and sort them into your list for direct outreach as needed.

3. Develop donor profiles or personas for different types of planned gifts.

Next, compile what you’ve learned into profiles or personas that outline key characteristics of prospects who’d be most likely to create planned gifts. We recommend creating profiles for the four primary types of planned gifts:

  • Bequests. Bequest donors often share a few demographic characteristics like age, gender, and marital/parental status, but it’s also a wide-reaching group since bequests don’t impact a donor’s day-to-day cash flow. The 2022 Planned Giving Report outlines the most important characteristics to incorporate into your model.
  • Charitable gift annuities. These planned gifts are given in exchange for fixed-income payments for life, so donors who make them tend to be wealthy, older, and fiscally conservative. Emphasize wealth markers in this donor persona.
  • Charitable remainder trusts. Similarly to an annuity, these gifts involve a large donation of cash and/or other assets given in exchange for fixed income payments, with any remaining assets going to the nonprofit. Model these donors like you would major donors of cash gifts. 
  • Charitable lead trusts. As the inverse of a remainder trust, these gifts involve fixed payments to the nonprofit while the donor receives the remaining assets once the gift’s term ends. These donors will often be wealthy parents since lead trusts can significantly lower their estate taxes.

Keep in mind that while some types of planned gifts make the most sense for your wealthiest supporters, bequests and other forms of non-cash giving, like stocks and crypto, can appeal to very wide groups. Ensure that your bequest marketing strategy includes a balance of direct outreach to individual prospects and broader promotions to your general audience.

4. Create segments of your planned giving prospects.

Now it’s time to put it all together. Sort your list of confirmed planned gift donors, major donors, and major donor prospects into the various personas based on what you’ve learned about them. This will result in your initial outreach lists, which you can then refine and adjust based on where you expect to see the highest return value.

But think bigger—use your CRM to quickly screen larger batches of your general donor base for the various characteristics identified in Step Three, and sort these donors into different prioritized lists. By taking steps over time to continue refining your personas, collect the right data, solicit feedback from donors, and keep your process organized, you can build a powerful planned giving pipeline. 

5. Reach out and begin qualifying your prospects.

With all the preparation done, you’re ready to begin reaching out to your lists of prospective planned donors to learn more about them, explain your planned giving program, the benefits of planned giving they might appreciate, and more. 

You should also use this opportunity to qualify your prospects over time. This process essentially consists of confirming prospects’ interest/relevancy for a particular type of giving at any given time so that you can keep your outreach lists fresh, organized, and prioritized in a way that will maximize your development team’s efforts.

But don’t forget—planned giving can appeal to donors across all giving levels, especially bequests!

Although you’ll likely only directly reach out to the top qualified prospects on your lists, you should still plan outreach that explains planned giving to all of your prospects and offers easy ways to create a planned gift, like by using FreeWill.

By following these key steps, you can begin seamlessly integrating planned giving into your nonprofit’s development program, unlock new revenue streams to sustain your mission, and build deeper relationships with supporters.

Ready to kickstart your nonprofit’s planned giving program? We can help! FreeWill makes it easy to identify your existing bequest donors, and we offer robust tools for tracking, managing, and identifying prospective donors. We can even provide you with customized marketing strategies to hit the ground running.


This spotlighted blog post is courtesy of FreeWill

Patrick Schmitt

Patrick is the co-founder of FreeWill, a social venture which has helped organizations to generate more than $7 Billion in new planned gifts, stock gifts, crypto donations, and qualified charitable distributions. Patrick and his co-founder Jenny were recently named two of the Top 50 Philanthropists in the World by Town & Country. From 2009-2010, Patrick ran email fundraising for President Obama, where his team invented many of the existing best practices in digital fundraising. He served as Head of Innovation at, helping to grow that organization to 200 million members in just four years. Patrick received his BS from Georgetown University and MBA from Stanford University.

February 16, 2023

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