We’re all sold on the merits of planned giving. So why is it so hard to get moving?

It seems that every fundraiser I meet has heard the gospel about planned giving—how vital, how necessary, how transformational it can be. You would think every organization on earth would be raising millions in new revenue through bequests and other planned gifts.

Not so.  At least, not yet.

Peel back that first layer of agreement—Yes, everyone should do more planned giving, right this minute! —and you find the hedges and objections. Sure, planned giving may be great, in a Pie-in-the-Sky way, but it’s not right for us. Not this year. Not right now. Not until we’ve got every other piece of our operation running perfectly.

Spoiler alert: that day isn’t coming.

Meanwhile, your donors continue to think about their future. They get planned giving pitches from other organizations and some of them even sit down and make a real will, with an attorney, just like they’ve been saying (and saying and saying) they would. And your deserving organization, which they might have considered for a bequest, is passed over because it never occurred to the donor to include you.

So how do you get out of planned giving limbo?

I am a pragmatist—it says so right up there in my header—and I think that without practical tools, inspiration sputters out. In two recent presentations –the 2011 conference of AFP of Massachusetts, and the 2012 Institute for Nonprofits of WIDGB, I offered some ideas for getting unstuck:

1. Don’t let a healthy respect for planned giving become your reason for putting it off. I meet many fundraisers who take planned giving seriously—so seriously that they aren’t going to touch it until they have taken all the trainings, hired a team of lawyers, and acquired a stable of millionaire donors. The result is that never get started, or their efforts are aimed at such a tiny segment of their donor base that the project lacks momentum. There are responsible ways to build planned giving into your current operations that require modest amounts of time and virtually no added expenses (I talk about a few of them here). Start small, but do get started. As Tom Ahern, a fundraising expert I admire greatly, has said: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time is right now.

2. Planned giving questions will find you, even if you’re not looking for them. If you do nothing else, prepare yourself for the moment when a donor asks if your organization accepts gifts by will. What are you going to say that will spark her interest and make her glad that she asked? What might you say if she reports that she did, in fact, put your organization into her plans? This is not a trick question. You need to say thank you. How you do that is largely up to you, but it’s worth thinking about before hand so you can really make the most of that interaction, and reinforce the donor’s (totally reversible) choice to make that gift.

3. Ask permission to ask. If the idea of talking about bequests or other planned gifts is nerve-racking for you, I offer a helpful strategy that I gleaned from a presentation by consultant and fundraising strategist Karen Osborne, which is simply the notion of asking permission to ask. For me, this translates to something like: “You’ve demonstrated a really strong commitment to this organization. If you feel comfortable, I’d like to talk with you about ways you might include us in an estate plan, like a will.” Approaching the conversation this way gives you, and the donor, a comfortable opt-out if it’s not the right time for the discussion. Sometimes all you need to do is broach the subject. The donor then knows it’s an option, and she knows you’re open to talking about it, if and when she wants to.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a very important step forward.

4. All together now: Bequests are about life and living our values. No one likes to feel like the Grim Reaper with a scythe in one hand and a bequest brochure in other—and believe me, your donors don’t want to have lunch with that character either. It’s vital for you to frame this issue in your own mind so that you can set the right tone. Bequests are gifts created by living, breathing people from all walks of life, who are living their values. What could be livelier than that?


Bequest giving for small shops, in this week’s “Wednesday Report.”

Although it’s still just Monday afternoon, this week’s “Wednesday Report” is now available at massnonprofit.org and I’m pleased to have authored the Expert Advice column, all about bequest giving for small shops.  The article examines some commonly held misconceptions that stand in the way of smaller shops establishing their own bequest giving programs, and offers tips on getting started.  I wrote this piece with the over-worked, one-person development shop in mind because I believe these heroic individuals need all the practical, relevant support they can get when it comes to planned giving– not just more admonishment to get started.  Please take a look!