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Donor Love, For Life: A Look At Planned Giving Stewardship

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In uncertain times, organizations with a focus on both short and long-term revenue and resources experience less disruption of services. One way to ensure the longevity of your operation is to develop and execute a planned giving program for your organization.

Giving USA reported 10% of 2019 giving in the United States was from bequests, and research from Dr. Russell James at Texas Tech University shows that donors who include a planned gift in their estate tend to increase their current giving, even for years after inclusion of the gift.

However, in launching and running a planned giving program, often much of the focus is on the acquisition part of the process. How do we identify who is a prospect? How will we communicate with them our organization’s willingness to accept legacy gifts? What is the process to accept the gift?

As the identification, cultivation, and solicitation parts of planned gifts may take years to complete, it’s understandable that receiving notification that a donor has included your organization in their estate is exciting! And it SHOULD be celebrated … they are making a lasting impact on those who your organization serves!

However, if this gift is not properly stewarded, it can be lost … and often, more quickly than it was acquired. That is because many planned gifts are revocable, such as bequest in a will or beneficiary designations on a retirement account or insurance policy (The Sharpe Group found in a study 71% of planned gifts were revocable). They can be changed at any time by the donor before the estate is realized. Changing a bequest is a little more involved as the donor will often work with their attorney, but many beneficiary designations are easily changed by logging in to a retirement or insurance account online and making a few quick updates.

How can you avoid this and properly ensure planned giving stewardship?

How planned giving stewardship differs

When dealing with current use donations, the stewardship process is sometimes short, and often morphs into cultivation for the next gift. But with a planned gift, the stewardship process is much longer: best practice is to steward the gift until received from the donor’s estate.

With donors making legacy giving decisions throughout their lives, this means gifts are often stewarded for decades. If a donor in their 40s includes your organization as a beneficiary on a retirement plan, and lives into their 80s or 90s, that’s 40 to 50 years of stewardship! While you may be the fundraising professional that secures the planned gift notification from the donor, the chances of you being the professional that works with the gift when it is realized from the donor’s estate is low.

How can you set up your successor colleagues for success with these gifts? First, have conversations with donors about what they want to accomplish with this ultimate gift. What do they envision their legacy to be with your organization? Is this feasible if not funded until decades from now? Capturing information on what they wish to see happen with their future gift in a way which is specific – but not so specific that it cannot be executed – is key.

Next, document as much as possible. Contact reports for donor visits and conversations are one way to accomplish this. Many organizations also develop a planned gift notification form, which captures basic information about the donor’s gift and intent. Some items on a typical form include:

  • Donor contact information, along with their advisor(s), and other key contacts related to the estate (such as family members or an executor),
  • whether the donor wishes the gift to be unrestricted or has a specific restriction request for the gift,
  • the type of gift (i.e., bequest from will, beneficiary designation)
  • the projected value of the gift (important in organizations with minimum gift requirements for restricted funds), and
  • whether the donor gives permission for the gift to be publicly acknowledged or wishes to remain anonymous.

It is also helpful if the donor is willing to provide estate documents naming your organization, such as a copy of the will (or at least, pages naming your organization) or confirmation of a beneficiary designation. Important considerations for all this documentation is confidentiality and security – you’ll want to be sure to limit access to this sensitive information, and ensure it will be safe in case of disaster (such as secured in a fireproof and waterproof location).

Ideas for planned giving stewardship

Once the gift is properly documented, how do you plan for the decades of donor love to be shown from your organization? First, be sure the notification is promptly thanked, just as your current use gifts should be. But don’t let this be the last time you thank these donors! Create a plan for ongoing thanks and outreach, at minimum once each year. This can be accomplished through visits (especially with the rise of virtual visits in the past year), inclusion on all important communications from your organization, and invitations to activities where appropriate.

Creating individualized plans can be helpful, and one item to consider based on the donor’s interest and availability is an invitation to become an engaged volunteer, to deepen their relationship and ensure your organization stays an important part of their life.

Where to begin?

If you have not developed your planned giving stewardship outreach, start small with contacting donors who have previously informed that your organization is in their estate. Ask these questions: Why did you make this gift? What do you hope to accomplish with this future impact? What is their story, especially with your organization?

Planned giving stewardship is a lifetime journey, and it can start with small steps towards a larger program goal.

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  • Michelle

    Great article reminding us about the length of time an org has to appreciate a donor for the legacy gift!
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