Is “Planned Giving” Dumb and Dumber?

Planned giving officers could well be the worst bequest marketers ever.

Many North American fundraising shops are stuck in a trap of their own making.


I speak to hundreds of fundraisers a year.

I often ask, “How many organizations in this room expect to be out of business in 25 years?” No hands go up.

Then I ask, “How many of you have an aggressive bequest marketing program?” Again, no hands go up.

Those two data points are incompatible. If you’re serious about your organization’s sustainability, a bequest marketing program is essential. (Just ask Harvard University, which now covers something like 43% of its annual operating costs from endowment income alone, much of that originating as bequests.)

It’s cheap and easy to market bequests; it requires one extra letter a year, at a minimum.AND, best of all, you don’t have to acquire any new donors: your best bequest prospects are ALREADY in your database. They are those who’ve given loyally for years and/or make larger than average annual gifts.

How “planned giving” kills bequests

US fundraising shops, though, typically categorize charitable bequests as “planned gifts.”

That’s a serious mistake in my view.

It lumps humble bequests – which mostly originate from middle-class households, research shows – in with a bunch of sophisticated financial products that only the wealthy and their advisors care about or understand.

Nor are planned giving officers (PGOs) the right people to sell bequests, I believe.PGOs are technical experts, sometimes lawyers, qualified to explain the arcane tax and income advantages of CRUTs, CRATs, CLATs and Ghoul CLTs.

When someone makes an inquiry, PGOs respond with info. Which means they’re reactive, not proactive. [PGOs, I invite your correction on these points. I’m looking for great programs.]

The bald fact is that bequest giving in the US badly lags bequest giving in the UK and Australia.And I wonder if the misplacement of bequests inside the la-di-da world of “planned giving” isn’t to blame.

Then who should market bequests, if not the planned giving department?

The annual fund people!!!

They’re in regular touch with the middle of the giving pyramid, the stratum from whence most bequests emerge.

Shifting responsibility for “legacy marketing” to the annual fund folks would make all the difference.

It has in other countries….

How much legacy giving remains untapped in America? Staggering amounts, potentially.

Let’s compare.

In its annual “State of the Donation” survey of giving in Australia, Pareto, the nation’s largest agency for direct mail and phone fundraising, found that, for largish charities which invest in face-to-face (street) fundraising, bequests are the second biggest source of giving annually.

See the 2014 charts below. Quick word on terminology: “regular donor” in Australia is the same as “monthly donor” in North America.


As you’ll note, in Australia, bequests far outpace major gifts in average value. Of course, that’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. A major gift can recur. A bequest cannot. Still, it’s a thought-provoking viewpoint, one that Stephen Pidgeon hopes you’ll ponder long and hard.

StephenHe devotes Chapter 10 in his wonderful book, How to Love Your Donors (to Death), to what he terms “legacy marketing.” Stephen co-founded and ran Tangible, the UK’s leading direct mail fundraising agency.

He never uses the words “planned giving,” by the way. Nor does Oxford University, on its giving web pages. And Oxford holds what is to my knowledge the world’s oldest endowed charitable fund, established in 1249.

It’s a truism of all marketing: you sell benefits, not features. Showing someone how to establish a true and lasting legacy is a benefit. “Planned gifts” is a feature.

Here’s what Stephen has to say:

The sums involved [in legacy marketing] are so huge, the impact of this money is so transforming, that it transcends any other form of fundraising.

All but the biggest major gifts are chicken feed in comparison to legacies. Regular monthly gifts paid through the bank? Legacies dwarf even this welcome source of money. Corporate gifts are but pennies in a bucket.

Yet people in charities (not, thankfully, the fundraisers) don’t take legacy marketing seriously at all.

Many trustees and senior charity staff believe legacies are the gift of the legacy fairies, they are that complacent. They love the money flowing in but don’t seem to think the flow can be promoted nor that it might stop one day without such promotion.

Reprinted with permission (I’m pretty sure). 

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