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[ASK AN EXPERT] Motivating Donors to Make a Will to Leave a Bequest

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who needs advice on legacy giving and how to overcome obstacles and barriers to receiving a bequest. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

How do you persuade donors to create a will so they can leave your organization a bequest? We can talk to donors about leaving a legacy until we’re blue in the face, but getting them to go visit their attorney is an obstacle getting in our way. Do you have any suggestions?

Can’t move the mountain

Dear Can’t Move the Mountain,

Getting people to visit their attorney for the sole purpose of leaving a charitable bequest is a tall order. Sometimes it’s wiser to begin with the reasons they should have a will in the first place.

Did you know only 42% of people in the U.S. create wills? The others die “intestate,” meaning the state determines how their legacy will be distributed. If they have heirs, it will usually be split among them. If they have no heirs, it will go to the government.

Most people would prefer to have some say over how their hard-earned assets are allocated after they die. They just can’t quite bring themselves to take the step of visiting an attorney.


Most people underestimate the worth of their estate and overestimate the time or cost involved in setting up a will. Also, they don’t consider the other useful aspects of a will, such as:

  • Determining who will look after children, pets, parents or other dependents.
  • Carrying out wishes about how the person wants to be buried.
  • Who will administer the estate and/or other legal, financial or familial obligations the deceased wishes others to assume.

You can do the following to encourage bequests:

  • Let people know what happens when they die without a will.
  • Let people know how they’ll benefit by making a bequest.
  • Let people know how your organization and community will benefit.
  • Give people suggested language they can share with their attorney.
  • Run a workshop led by attorneys or estate planners who are not paid by you to create wills on your organization’s behalf.
  • Let people know they should consult with their own legal and financial professionals.

You cannot do the following, which could be interpreted as exerting ‘undue influence:’

  • Give legal or financial advice.
  • Be directly involved in the creation or drafting of a donor’s will.

Don’t forget there are also ways to encourage donors to leave the equivalent of a bequest without even having to visit an attorney. That’s right!

People can name you as beneficiary of all or a portion of a retirement account, savings or checking account or a life insurance policy.  All they need to do is contact their account or plan administrator and ask them for paperwork to complete a beneficiary designation. It’s simple, and they can change it at any time.

BIG REMINDER: Bequests are revocable. Too often nonprofits go to a lot of effort to get folks to leave a bequest, only to lose that bequest down the line because they forget the importance of having a strong donor love and loyalty plan to retain these donors. Please make a plan to actively steward donors who inform you they’ve left you a bequest. These folks have included you in their estate plans as they’d include a member of their family. Treat them accordingly. 

Finally, don’t be afraid of talking about death. It happens to everyone; no one escapes. In many ways, encouraging donors to leave a legacy is a way to help them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It can:

  • Create happiness
  • Promote wellbeing
  • Instill a sense of autonomy and power
  • Offer purpose and meaning
  • Provide tax benefits

These are very good things. So don’t shy away from helping your donors do what will reap them numerous rewards. In fact, promoting legacy giving may be the ultimate way to help donors assure their values live on. 

I hope this helps you move many mountains!

— Charity Clairity

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?

Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “Can’t Move the Mountain” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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