3 Things Not to Do - Legacy Campaigns

Just when you think it can’t get any weirder in the world of fundraising, a whole bunch of things happened in the last few weeks that were, well, flabbergasting. So much so that I can’t fit them all into one newsletter, so I’ll be filling the next few issues with commentary about these not-so-brilliant fundraising tactics.

Today’s is about legacy campaigns (otherwise known as “planned giving”). Per the last Giving USA report, bequests account for about 10% of all giving, with about $43B given to NPOs by bequest in 2019 — and that amount was more than double what it was in 2000. As to the source of these bequests, in 2019:

  • $24.77B came from estates of $5M or more.

  • $7.01B came from estates valued at between $1M and $5M, and

  • $11.43B came from estates valued at less than $1M.

Hopefully, this makes it clear that assuming that only the very rich give via bequests is faulty. In fact, many gifts — generally the “surprise” kind — come from people who aren’t on your “target” lists at all. Often they’re volunteers or small-dollar supporters who just love what you do.

So it makes sense to encourage all of your donors (and volunteers!) to think about including your organization in their estate plans — and to then commit to you that they’ve done so.

I understand that this pitch is difficult for many fundraisers to get their heads around, but when crises happen (i.e. a pandemic), it’s interesting to see that those organizations that have created and managed professional legacy programs were able to remain strong because of bequests that came in the door.

There are lots out there about how to set up and manage a legacy campaign, and my only additions to that advice are to (a) include your volunteers in your outreach, and (b) make it clear that this is not just for the wealthiest of your donors.

But I have lots to say about what NOT to do.

  1. Don’t think of pledges as “real money” in your budget. As excited as you might be to have secured a “formal” legacy gift, don’t ever count on that gift as cash until it’s in your hands.

  2. As this is a sensitive subject (i.e. dealing with death), don’t push public acknowledgment as a selling point (unless you know that your donor is likely to want that). Many people are very uncomfortable with sharing their long-term planning wishes with others, and the push to “recognize” them might just turn them off from giving.

  3. Most importantly, don’t pander. This explains the weirdness that I started this article with. Last week I received an email with the subject line from a nonprofit that read “A Free Will in Minutes!”. Clearly, this NPO thought that the “bait and switch” model was going to get them a chance to push someone into joining their legacy program, and that’s just icky.

As many of you know from reading my book, short-term, transactional, and, in this case, “gotcha!” thinking is not only unhelpful, it’s encouraging people to not donate. Witness the rapid acceleration of giving to Donor Advised Funds (now holding over $142B) without sending the funds on to charities. Notice the increasing rate of donor churn (now over 81% of first-time donors will not give the following year). One-time donors do not sustainable organizations make — especially when they donated in the first place because they were cajoled or “tricked” into giving. The “A Free Will…” pitch is insulting and maybe even predatory.

A final note — there are many well-run legacy programs out there, and I applaud the NPOs that have supported these programs (despite the nature of legacy gifts being the opposite of an immediate return.) 10% of all giving is nothing to sneeze at, and I strongly encourage every organization out there to devote some time and energy to this form of giving. It’s good for the organization, it’s good for the donor, and it’s good for the sector.


I’m Saving Giving by providing a clear path to success, supported by data, statistics, and interviews. You can find more of me lifting the lid on the charitable sector here on Philanthropy 451, in my bestselling book, Philanthropy Revolution, or on socials at TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn

- Lisa