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Which Is Your Next Priority: Younger Donors or Boomers?

Heed these words, from a recent For Impact blog posting: “The best time to plant trees was 20 years ago. The next best time is NOW.”

This bracing slap, from one of fundraising’s most fervent and useful blogs, refers to the marketing of charitable bequests and other planned gifts. Had your organization made a serious effort 20 years ago to get into the wills of the Greatest Generation, today you would be harvesting large and luscious philanthropic fruits.

Not happening for you? Let’s take a look at two common communications lapses.

This is not a serious effort: Adding a postscript on your direct mail reply device, advising, “If you’d like more information about legacy giving, check this box.”

This is not a serious effort: Relentlessly mailing to your donors one of those dreadful canned “planned giving” newsletters that only an accountant could love.

But now? Well, now you have a second chance to get it right … as vast numbers of boomers approach their sell-by dates.

Let’s replay the staggering math and lick our bequest marketing chops.

There were 76 million births in the U.S. from 1946 to 1964 (source: Population Reference Bureau). I was one of them And America wasn’t the only nation that went procreatively crazy post-World War II. The UK, for one, is sitting on a rich lode of aging boomers.

The first boomers hit the magic age of 65 in 2011. What lies ahead for them?

A renewed search for meaning, perhaps. Trained as consummate consumers, boomers may now be shopping for something different: a late-in-life sense of purpose … and a way to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

In fact, research shows, boomers crave purpose. What a lucky coincidence. Philanthropy, as it happens, is all about purpose.

But enough about them. Let’s talk about you: where are you putting your emphasis these days, on courting (1) the aging or (2) the young?

If you’re hunting new donors, almost any donor will do. Young, old, they all come in roughly alike.

1950s YouthOr so you might think. But do they stick? There’s a bit of a rub: older new donors tend to keep giving longer than younger new donors. A 25-year-old winkled out by street fundraising will likely be gone in a year. A 40-year-old new donor obtained the same way will continue giving.

You see, age matters. It’s not that younger donors are less generous. It’s just that they have so much more to buy: clothes, cars, furnishings, homes, education for their eventual kids. Older donors have been there, done that.

A person aged 65 is far more likely to have two things a young adult won’t have: (1) enough stuff, and (2) a sense that time is running out.

Want to set up a really first rate bequest marketing program? Are you ready to get serious and plant trees that 20 years from now will drop into your organization’s lap big, luscious philanthropic fruit? I’d call Richard Radcliffe at Smee & Ford in London. He’ll set you right.


And one of the first things he’ll have you do is write up a “vision statement.” It’s like a mission statement, except it’s about where you want to go: i.e., your organization’s destination.

Here’s an example, paraphrased from Mr. Radcliffe:

“In 1960, the survival rate for childhood cancer was appalling. It was a death sentence, really. But donor-sponsored research has made tremendous progress since then. Today, four out of five children survive a cancer diagnosis. Still, the job is far from done. By 2020, almost half of our children will face some kind of cancer event, thanks to environmental factors. We absolutely can defeat cancer, with your devoted help. But now we need to push harder than ever. Please include cancer research amongst your bequests. Tomorrow’s children will need your help.”

Let me break that down for you: (1) You show what you’ve accomplished to date. (2) You cheer the donors who made it possible. (3) You show that new challenges are on the horizon. (4) You issue a clear call to action. (5) You make a promise (“…absolutely can defeat…”) (6) You shift the responsibility onto the donors’ shoulders, where it should be, because that responsibility makes donors feel needed.

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications newsletter.

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