10 Breakthrough Planned Giving Insights from Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Latest Report

July 2, 2018  |  Gabby Weiss

In the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s recent report, 9 Trillion And Counting: How Charities Can Tap Into the Transfer of Wealth, researchers undertake a qualitative and quantitative study of the state of nonprofit planned giving programs. This extensive report offers analysis of generational wealth data, in-depth case studies of multiple nonprofits’ planned giving efforts, and detailed instructions on how to approach planned giving conversations with your donors. Here are 10 of the biggest findings.

1. We’re at the beginning of the “windfall years”

While many nonprofit leaders are concerned about their aging donor bases, fundraisers should be preparing for what the Chronicle of Philanthropy has termed the “windfall years.” Over the next decade, they predict that nearly $9 trillion of wealth will be transferred from estates, creating unprecedented potential for nonprofits to gain through bequests and other planned gifts. Citing numerous studies which have taken places over several decades, the authors predict that nonprofits which prepare correctly will see huge financial opportunities in the area of planned gifts in the next ten years.

2. You might be targeting the wrong donors for planned gifts

According to one of the planned giving professionals interviewed, substantial bequests don’t always come from donors who have also given large amounts during their lifetimes. Instead, the most important factor to look for is long-term loyalty to the organization. He recommends that fundraisers “should look for donors who have given “$100 or $500 a year for 25 years” over those who have given a few larger gifts when identifying prospects for planned giving outreach.

3. Successful planned giving is a long-term project

Beyond the fact that planned giving is most often considered once donors have established a relationship with a nonprofit, a planned giving officer’s work isn’t done even when a donor has decided to designate the organization in their will. It is important to thank them, and continue a relationship with them afterward to express your gratitude for their legacy gift. Because fundraisers are often driven by deadlines and disincentivized from investing in long-term relationship building, planned giving programs must take the unique nature of the work into account.

4. Planned gifts are worth investing in

One case study in the report is the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit which began investing heavily in a planned giving program during the early 1980s. Due to their efforts, which include intensive training for planned gift fundraisers and building a staff culture that values planned giving, today 20-25% of donations they receive each year come from planned gifts.

5. Training and team structure is key

Another lesson learned by the Nature Conservancy over decades of planned giving work was that structuring their planned giving team around different types of planned gifts was more effective than dividing fundraisers based on geography. Another key component of their program involves training every fundraiser, regardless of whether or not the are on the planned giving team, to identify donor cues that suggest they are a good prospect for planned giving outreach.

6. Direct mail is your best bet

In a case study of the American Heart Association, researchers found that although nonprofit organizations as a whole have cut back on direct mail appeals, direct mail is the most effective way of reaching older donors who are most likely to consider planned giving. For the AHA, around 60% of their donations from estate settlements come from donors whose initial support followed a direct mail communication.

7. Don’t wait to start the conversation

The American Heart Association also learned over time that their initial strategy of waiting for two years to approach new supporters about planned giving was unnecessary. They found that donors had no problem being approached about planned giving after their initial gift to the organization, without the previously utilized waiting period.

8. Using multiple databases means messy data and unhappy donors

The final observation drawn from the American Heart Association case study is that using multiple databases for fundraising made it difficult or impossible to respond nimbly to donors’ requests, damaging trust and relationships. Since moving to a streamlined system, they say that donors are “blown away” by their ability to quickly change their contact methods and other preferences when asked.

9. Know your donor’s ages and target at the right time

The study draws a number of conclusions geared toward helping nonprofits start or improve their planned gift outreach process. One of their biggest findings was that it is important to know how old your donors are (one fundraising consultant even called failing to track donors’ ages the “number one mistake” in planned giving), and start talking to them about planned giving early. It is easier to named a beneficiary in a donor’s will or trust when they are in their 50s or 60s than when they’re in their 80s and have already settled on their plans.

10. Start the conversation by sharing stories

Broaching a conversation with loyal donors about what they want done with their assets after their death can be difficult and uncomfortable. To begin the conversation gracefully, several experts recommend what they call the “four-S method,” which stands for “three stories and then shut up.” To follow this method when talking to a donor, tell two anecdotes that help update them on your organization's accomplishments, and then a story of how receiving another donor's recent planned gift will positively impact your work. This gives the donor several options to respond to, and if they're ready to take your cue, they'll start the planned giving conversation with you.

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