nonprofit legacies

Two thirds of Americans don’t have a will. That’s a vast area of untapped resources for the nonprofit sector. Expanding a current gifts program or taking on the challenge of beginning one is incredibly rewarding but takes time to ferment.

Encouraging people to make a will and include your nonprofit in it isn’t easy. A fun run or gala charity auction is a lot more upbeat. For fundraisers it’s the equivalent of emailing a supporter to remind them to do their tax returns!

Traditionally the larger the nonprofit, the more likely it is that they can maintain a consistent legacy donor drive. On the flip side, the smaller organizations are more likely to see them as unexpected financial blessings to reap sporadically and therefore they put them to one side of projected fundraising targets.

Some nonprofits are able to draw on this support more regularly, simply through the nature of their mission. However all are capable of turning the occasional bestowment into a consistent portion of their annual funding.

Nurturing nonprofit legacies is a lengthy process, the fruits of which are hard to evaluate in the short term. It’s an area of fundraising strewn with delicate ethical and legal issues which need to be handled with care, as it’s likely you’ll be dealing with spouses and family members who are still dealing with their loss.

Insider’s guide to Leading with Nonprofit Legacies

I recently reached out to a wills and gifts expert from the UK to better understand legacy growth and management. Gary Moyle has decades of experience working for the Martlets hospice just outside London.

This mid-size organization focuses on palliative care and Gary has brought many millions in through his legacy fundraising drives over recent years.

I began by asking him what would be your top pieces of advice to anyone looking to build their charities wills and gifts programs?

Identify the different motivations that supporters of your charity or the wider population might have to leave gifts in their will to you. Design your communications around those motivations and use examples if you have them of people who have left legacies to you for these reasons. Focus initially on your charity’s supporters and identify those most loyal to you – age and loyalty to your cause are key factors in successfully soliciting and realizing nonprofit legacies.

You may also want to consider whether a drive to promote will writing generally might work for your supporters and include your need to grow legacy gifts in this promotion.

Remember though that although making a will is a practical and logical exercise, the drive to leave charitable gifts is an emotional one. So use images and tell stories about your work which motivate support and make them feel the significance of leaving a gift in their will to your nonprofit.

Do some desk-based research looking at other charities’ websites and gifts in wills content – especially those with similar causes to yours – learn from their content and use the most attractive elements in your own campaign.

Do you consider marketing or advertising useful when looking for donors? 

We know that most of our legators are people connected to our cause – our hospice patients and their families. We are also a local charity befitting a distinct city population. So we market internally to give our clinical teams the knowledge and confidence to have conversations with our beneficiaries about the importance of gifts in wills to our charity if the occasion arises.  

We market regularly to our supporter base through hospice communications about our work and how we generate our income. Our main marketing drive externally focuses on our annual Will Writing Month where people can have their wills written in return for a donation to our hospice. Our marketing spend is limited.

How do you bridge budgeting limitations?

We use local media advertising (newspaper, magazines and local radio) to drive uptake. It’s cost effective and as our charity is community based, there is a reservoir of goodwill to draw on. The campaign includes stories about local people who have left gifts in their wills to us and asks them to consider including a gift to us when writing their will.

Bequests written into wills are a bittersweet but significant resource for nonprofits. Someone choosing your organization to support when they pass on is an incredible act of kindness and Gary’s advice will continue in part two, sharing valuable insights for large and small charities alike.

Ultimately nonprofit legacies are a beautiful way of bringing good out of the loss and with due diligence and sincere appreciation they can and do keep many nonprofits alive.

Use this gift acceptance policy template as a starting point to create a plan for accepting legacy gifts.

Nick Wood

Nick Wood

Freelance Journalist & Author
Nick Wood is a freelance journalist and author. Specializing in the nonprofit Industry, digital media, and the travel sector. With years of experience working within the industry on the ground in the UK and further afield. Founder of light-on-light, a project addressing the stories of individuals and organisations making a positive and intentional impact on society. For enquiries,