Legacy Logjams (and How to Free Them): Four Easy Ways to Overcome Barriers to Bequest Giving

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Credit: Photo by Iván Díaz on Unsplash

If nonprofits made it easier to leave a legacy, more donors would gladly do so. Overcome these four common obstacles, and watch what happens…

It all began with a wonderful email conversation with Bill, the director of legacy giving at a large charity.

Bill wrote:

“I have just read a couple of your pieces which are excellent. Am wondering if you could point me to any research pieces that identify barriers to bequest giving. I found one this morning which includes:

  • Lack of solicitation
  • Family needs come first
  • Feelings of financial insecurity
  • Estate planning is too complicated and costly.

These are all valid, but I am wondering if there is another ‘top 5’ list with different barriers?”

Read Bill’s list again, carefully.

Because as I told him, in my opinion, he’d already listed the biggest legacy logjams… and the ones that I as a fundraising copywriter work hardest to help my clients overcome.

This article explores each legacy logjam one by one, suggests ways to free them, and includes as many links to helpful resources as I can pack in for you (and Bill!).

Legacy Logjam #1: Lack of Solicitation

Seven words sum it up: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

But fear not. There is a cure for lack of solicitation.

Focus first on one type of legacy: Making a bequest in a Will. (Here’s why: charitable bequests are by far the most common type of planned gift, and according to this excellent planned giving guide by FreeWill, comprise about 9% of charitable giving – average bequest on FreeWill, for the record, is $50,424).

Then start asking, by putting your bequest marketing on ‘drip-feed’… also known as the steady, ongoing mention of how your donors can leave a legacy gift in their Wills to benefit the future good work of your organization.

Since hardly any nonprofits do this, the opportunity is still huge.

In the truckload of supporter newsletters, fundraising appeals, emails, and other donor communications I keep on file, precious few say a peep about how to leave a simple legacy gift in my Will or the lasting benefits of a bequest (i.e., make a difference for the future, do something good, be remembered after they’re gone, benefit to society, relieve suffering, etc.). Fewer still showcase it.

To illustrate what drip-feed legacy marketing can do for you, a story:

In a donor newsletter I wrote for a client, we placed a simple call-out box telling donors how they could leave a legacy gift in their Wills – and of the good it would do. It was the first mention this organization had ever made about bequests.

Eighteen months later they received a legacy gift of more than $10,000 from a gentleman who had given a couple of gifts during that time while living, then passed away.

Ten. Thousand. Dollars. From a single call-out box.

Where in your donor communications can you mention bequests? In supporter newsletters, thank-you letter postscripts, welcome packs, website, emails, magazines, fundraising premiums, and more.

The trick is to get started. Now. Drip, drip, drip.

Legacy Logjam #2: Family Needs Come First

Freeing this legacy logjam isn’t as easy as a call-out box in your newsletter. For most of us, family comes first – but, even with family, some are more likely to bequeath…

Most of us have read that one of the best clues is an older female donor who uses the title “Miss.” Here’s another clue. Again on FreeWill, they found that people over age 44 give more than eight out of every ten legacy gift dollars on their platform. And more: Russell James’s landmark study, American Charitable Bequest Demographics, found that among 20,000+ Americans over age 50 from 1992 – 2012, the most likely to make bequests are people with no children or grandchildren. (If you have to choose between children vs. grandchildren, pick people with children. The study found only about 1 in 10 people with grandchildren make bequests.)

You can also – and should also – acknowledge the “family first” issue head on. Include as an option the remainder bequest, as does CNY SPCA on its website: “Give only the remainder, or residue, of your estate-that which remains after bequests to loved ones have been made.”

For a simple newsletter insert we did for one of our clients, we said this:

Making a Will is extremely important because it’s the only way for you to say how you’d like your assets and special belongings to be distributed to the people and causes you care about. Without a Will to give your instructions, those decisions will be made for you by others.

Legacy Logjam #3: Feelings of Financial Insecurity

In a free ebook published by Blackbaud years ago, they rightly pointed out that many donors believe legacy giving is “only for the wealthy.” Another common misconception is that supporters feel their bequest won’t possibly be big enough to make a difference.

Your job – especially in the aforementioned “drip-feed” communications – is to assure donors that anyone can leave a legacy, and any amount will make a difference.

You don’t have to overthink the writing around this. The goal is to address the unspoken doubt then overcome it with sincere reassurance.

Like this:

Simple bequests of any size by Will are some of the greatest, most everlasting gifts of all made by caring people just like you, every day.

And this, for an organization helping people who are homeless:

Through a gift in your Will, large or small, you can touch the lives of people who are vulnerable in a powerful and profound way: by helping provide dignity, warmth, and nourishment – or in another area of your choice.

Legacy Logjam #4: Estate Planning is Too Complicated and Costly

Hear me now: There is nothing like legalese to kill the giving spirit.

So when you use phrases like – and these are from an actual nonprofit website – “charitable planned gifts”… “pooled income funds”… and “life estate agreements” – you’ve already lost me.

Start with these seven steps instead:

  1. Tell me how easy it is to make a simple bequest.
  2. Reassure me I can remember the people I love first.
  3. Show me the lasting difference my bequest will make, of any size, including any amount that’s left after I’ve remembered my loved ones.
  4. Remind me it’s easy to not only have a Will drawn up, but to leave a bequest to your charity. (Bonus points if you also offer a free legacy planner they can take to their lawyer. We’ve done these for our nonprofit clients: donors love them. AND even bigger bonus points if you let readers know that you’ll send them a planner whether they include your charity in their Will, or any other charity of their choice.)
  5. Give me the language I need to make that happen. (In a newsletter feature or on your website, you can easily include very simple language for a remainder bequest, for example.)
  6. Do NOT ask me to “declare” that I’ve made a bequest – this only creates a whole new logjam where donors feel pressured. (And if you really want to set yourself apart, come right out and say that it’s their choice and their choice alone to let you know they’ve included you in their will – like the UK’s NSPCC do in their legacy charter – and you will never ask.)
  7. Tell me how grateful you’ll be. (Bonus points if you have a simple recognition program: our nonprofit clients honour their legacy donors with everything from hand-engraving their initials on lovely, oak “Forever Loved” benches to planting a rose in their name in a special remembrance garden.)

Drip, drip, drip. Can you hear it?

Those legacy logjams are already starting to clear.

About Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent is an award-winning fundraising copywriter and story strategist on a mission to transform the way nonprofits communicate with their donors, for visibly better results and retention. Contributing author to acclaimed decision science book Change for Better and upcoming author of Thankology, Lisa’s free Donor Thank-You Clinics were named one of the world’s “top 10 gifts for fundraisers” by SOFII (Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration) and remain the most-ever visited exhibit there. Follow Lisa’s no-holds-barred blog Sargent Writes and subscribe to her newsletter, The Loyalty Letter, for free insights on the art, heart, craft, and science of generous stories, fundraising writing, and donor communications.

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