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Help Donors Leave Legacies: Create Philanthropic Autobiographies

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 “People do not give to the most urgent needs, but rather they support causes that mean something to them.”

This is the key finding from a report done by the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at the University of Kent: “How Donors Choose Charities.” They begin their study from the widely-accepted premise that charities exist primarily to help needy people and the desire to meet needs is a key criterion in the selection of charitable beneficiaries.

Not so much it turns out.

Giving is largely tied to identity.

Perhaps you don’t believe this to be true. Perhaps you wish it weren’t true. Perhaps this may not seem fair to you. No matter. What you believe, wish and think is not a fruitful way to approach developing a legacy giving program. In fact, it’s not a good way to approach building an annual giving program either. Good philanthropy facilitators get inside the minds of their donors.

Donor giving motivations may run counter to your intuition.

In the afore-mentioned study, interviews with committed donors revealed meeting urgent needs was not the primary reason they gave. Rather, they were hugely influenced by a process of creating ‘philanthropic autobiographies’ shaped by factors such as personal and professional backgrounds, social experience, tastes, desires, preferences and passions.

Giving is very much a reflection of who the donor is and who they aspire to become.

Legacy giving is even more aspirational than annual giving. Even those who don’t give while they’re alive may aspire to be seen as philanthropists after their deaths which is where philanthropic autobiographies come into play.

Learn What Matters to Your Donors for their Philanthropic Autobiographies

To do a better job motivating giving, especially legacy giving, you must learn more about your specific donor’s sense of identity.

Otherwise you’ll always be trying to meet donors where you perceive them to be, rather than where they actually are.

Your job is to help donors become the best version of themselves.

The tricky part is finding out your donor’s perspective on what truly matters in life. Some of the key questions to which you should endeavor to find answers include:

  1. How do the values our organization enacts align with your values?
  2. What would you like to see in the autobiography of your life?
  3. Is there a legacy you’d like to leave to future generations?
  4. How would you like to be remembered?

If you want donors to think about their answers to these questions you must communicate in a manner that inspires self-reflection. I’ll discuss how, when and where to ask these questions later in this article.

How to Help Your Donors Leave Meaningful Legacies through Philanthropic Autobiographies

I’ve discovered three primary ways to get inside the minds of potential legacy donors. Much of this information comes from legacy giving expert and researcher Dr. Russel James [see Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor]. The balance comes through neuroscience and psychology research, including my favorite experts [grab their groundbreaking books] Robert Cialdini and Daniel Kahneman. If you want to inspire legacy giving, you have to inspire donors to make giving to your charity part of their life story. You do this through give and take; through showing and telling, and through asking and listening. Whichever strategy you pick, always think from your donor’s perspective. What are they seeking?


This is how the donor sees their life from a third person perspective.

Think of this from the view of Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol. One Christmas Eve, Scrooge was visited by three ghosts who helped him visualize his life as others saw him – past, present and future. He did not like what he saw. This made him want to be a better, more generous person.

How can your communications invoke the spirit of generosity? One of the best ways to communicate is through example. Examples can emulate generosity given or generosity received. Both are part of most people’s lives, and both feel good.

Here are two kinds of examples you can share to help donors visualize leaving a legacy. Do this in your newsletter, blog, emails, annual report and on your website. You can also do this in person (or on Zoom) at legacy society events.

  1. Tell stories from other donors explaining why they’re over-the-moon about a gift they gave to you. Donors are influenced by peers or authoritative figures. When you share peer stories you invoke the persuasion principle of ‘social proof’ espoused by Robert Cialdini. This principle is also sometimes called “monkey see, monkey do,” because it connects with the way human beings are psychologically wired. Early humans saw others eat berries; when they didn’t die, they knew they were okay to eat. It’s the same principle with legacy giving. If others are doing it, especially if they’re folks people like and trust, it must be a good thing to do! Because this is so primal, it’s powerful.
  2. Tell stories from folks you’ve helped explaining why they’re grateful for a gift given. When people see a gift made a demonstrative difference, this acts as a short-cut to trust. It’s another manifestation of ‘social proof.’ Or, if you will, the “proof is in the pudding.”


This is your donor’s desire to be perceived favorably.

Think of this as holding up a mirror. Not only do people want others to see them in a positive light; they want to love what they see when they gaze upon their own reflection. Sometimes it feels we live in an “all about me” world. All about me doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even if at first blush it sounds ego-driven. You see, there’s nothing wrong with ego. It drives us to want to be better.

How can your communications help your donor look in the mirror and see a hero looking back at them? I looked up the definition of ‘hero’ in Merriam-Webster and it’s “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.”

Shower your donors with love and recognition for all their achievements and positive qualities. Do this everywhere you can think of, including thank you letters, personalized emails, thank you videos sent via email or text, legacy society newsletter, blog, or report and on your website. And don’t forget personal phone calls and Zoom meetings.

  1. Tell them “you make this possible” rather than “look at what we did.”
  2. Show them the results through stories, images and video, with a caption: “See how you saved the day.”
  3. Keep a donor gratitude journal and share with your supporter how you feel about their personal acts of ‘heroism’ (which could be as simple as organizing a phone tree, preparing a meeting agenda, or identifying a new donor prospect). Everything contributes to the greater good.


This is your donor’s desire to have part of themselves live on after death.

Think of this as the ‘gravestone effect.’ There is long history and tradition of marking the graves of the deceased with headstones, words, decorations, and symbols denoting religious beliefs, social class, occupation, and a whole variety of aspects of their lives. Before they die, many people think about how they would like to be buried and remembered. Sometimes ashes are scattered over the seas, because that person loved the ocean. Sometimes a tree is planted, because the deceased loved nature. And so forth.

How can your communications discover what part of themselves your donor most values? A good way to ascertain this is to ask them if there is a legacy they’d like to leave. Or ask them what they most value today; then… would they like that value to live on past their lifetime? [Now take a closer look at the four questions posed at the beginning of this article.]

How to Discern the Legacy Your Donor Wants to Leave

There are numerous ways to ask. The three I prefer are:

  1. Survey
  2. Face to Face
  3. Remit card or Thank You Landing Page Box


A good survey embraces your donors, saying you care about what they think and feel.

Many donors join your cause because they want to express their values. Often they want to feel part of a community of like-minded people. They want to do something meaningful – and be loved.

Without community, you’ve got a bunch of folks just smushed together — but they derive no meaning from each other. This doesn’t feel that great, so these folks move on to another place that might be more embracing.

A survey is a way to get direct, first-hand feedback from your supporters and learn what they honestly care about. here. When you ask supporters direct questions, they stop being just a spectator and become a participant. They feel good about you and your cause, because you’ve asked them to help pitch in. You’ve shown them they matter.

Surveys get people involved.

And when you get folks involved in actions other than giving money, they feel more valued… more connected… more engaged. This increases their propensity to give again. And, ultimately, to consider a legacy gift. 

Face to Face

Every time you’re face to face with a donor is an opportunity to find out a little more about their values. Engage folks with open-ended questions to draw them out.

  • What drew you to this cause?
  • What in your upbringing may have led you here?
  • Why do you believe this is so important?
  • How does this cause mesh with your core values?

Remit or Thank You Landing Page

If you do nothing else, it’s pretty simple to include a small box on your remit card (direct mail appeal) or Thank You Landing Page (online appeal) that asks your donor to leave a one or two-word answer to a simple question, e.g.:

  • What one word describes the legacy you’d like to leave?
  • What one word describes how you’d like others to think of you?

This has the added benefit of letting donors know you care about them personally, not just their wallet. With major donor prospects this also provides you with a great lead-in to a follow-up conversation: “Thanks for letting us know you’d like to leave a legacy of equality. I would love to talk with you more about this. Do you have 10 minutes during which we might schedule a conversation?”

NOTE: Do not include this box on your Donation Landing Page where it might distract from completing the gift. It’s better to include this at the time you say thank you, especially as it’s likely to be something that aligns with the values your organization enacts. For example, a food bank might say: “Because you cared, Jimmy and kids like him will go to bed with full tummies. Thank you for your meaningful $100 gift!” This would be followed by a fill-in box asking them to give you a word that describes the legacy they’d like to leave. A donor might answer: “Freedom from hunger.”

3 Other Ways to Inspire the Creation of Philanthropic Autobiographies

1. Inspire Tribute or Memorial Giving (annual gifts)

Proactively let donor’s know they can make a gift in honor or memory of a loved one. This is a great way for them to express their values and support the values of those who are most close to them.

Tribute giving plays into donors’ Visualized Philanthropic Autobiographies by demonstrating to others how much they care. Generally, organizations will notify an honoree a gift was made in tribute to them. The same holds true for members of the deceased’s family. Some organizations will even publish this information.

Knowing others important to them see them as generous and caring makes donors feel good. And, of course, seeing themselves as generous and caring also has a beneficial effect.

  • I am a giver
  • I am a good person
  • I am a rescuer/ helper/hero

2. Inspire Named Endowments (endowment gifts)

Promote opportunities to make a gift that continues in perpetuity. Generally endowment gifts are restricted to use of income only, so the gift principle lives on. Forever.

Named endowments play into a donor’s Autobiographical Heroism by concretely showing others their heroic acts. The donor’s life lives on, just as it would in the pages of philanthropic autobiographies. This may take the form of a Named Chair, Named Scholarship, or simply a Named Fund whose income is used annually for a specified purpose close to the donor’s heart.

People love to continue contributing to named endowments over their lifetimes, and will also encourage friends and family to give to them on special occasions such as life cycle events. They may even decide to more fully fund their endowment through an estate plan gift.

What? You say your board doesn’t see the need to build an endowment?

Building an endowment is not a luxury. When boards fail to understand the long-term need to build an endowment portfolio it always surprises me. When I ask folks if they think it’s responsible for an individual or family to have only a checking account, and no savings account, they of course say “no, that’s not smart.” But somehow they feel it’s morally wrong for nonprofits to have any savings. That leads to a living paycheck-to-paycheck mentality that makes long-term sustainability and planning extraordinarily difficult. And it’s such a shame, too, when loyal donors pass away without having even considered a gift to your organization that would have perpetuated their values.

3. Inspire Naming Opportunities (major and capital campaign gifts)

Advertise opportunities to have something named after the donor. It may be a building, room, brick, chair, book plate, annual luncheon or, truly, whatever you can dream up.

Naming opportunities play into a donor’s Symbolic Immortality by assuring a little piece of them lives on. Literally, their legacy may be written in stone. This can be powerfully compelling. Have you ever had a family member or friend take you to a museum, school, church or some other place to show you where they or a family member have a plaque installed?

People are proud of philanthropic autobiographies and the lasting symbols of their philanthropy.

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