I have attended the school of hard knocks when it comes to planned giving. When I look back over a 20 year period on my experiences engaging donors about making a bequest, each and every instance has taught me valuable lessons about the psychology of estate planning.
Dr. Russell James, Researcher and Professor at Texas Tech University, has given me valuable insight and successful strategies over the years. Dr. James points out in his presentations and in his book Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor that often a charity is 40 years away from actually realizing if their approach to a donor was effective.
In fact, I have learned in the past 20 years in fundraising that discussing major giving and setting up bequests for charities are two of the last things people really think about in their daily lives.
Why did my first Leave a Legacy or Planned Giving sessions feel like busts at the time? I would organize sessions in which donors and supporters only showed up for moral support (and to be perfectly clear, none of my family members came out to support me). During these meetings we even provided coffee and continental breakfast in a comfortable setting.
Only years later did I realize these events really were successful. Of the four people who came to one of my first Planned Giving sessions, three have now passed on and one is still living. Of the three that have since passed, I can say that all three left bequests in their estates, with two of the three making donations which are in the top five largest gifts to this organization. During their lifetimes, all three continued to make annual contributions to the organization. Of interest, at the time none of the three had an updated will.
The key to my success with these Leave a Legacy sessions was to reference the research of Dr. James. When approaching a donor, instead of using the planned giving terminology, I invoked a term Dr. James calls “symbolic immortality” when addressing leaving a legacy in estates or tax planning with donors. The discussion then moved from an ask for the charity to a discussion about the donor’s heirs and how they can have a lasting impact in the world.
This technique has been replicated countless times in the past eight years with increased success. More individuals are attending these information sessions and taking estate and philanthropic planning discussions and the completion of their wills to the next stage.