Surprise! Most Legacy Gifts DON’T Come from Major Donors

Planned giving professional Greg Lassonde gives us step-by-step instructions for soliciting bequests and planned gifts.

Surprise! Most Legacy Gifts DON’T Come from Major Donors
12 mins read

It could be time for your nonprofit to consider breaking out of its funding silo.

Planned giving professional Greg Lassonde gives us step-by-step instructions for soliciting bequests and planned gifts, and sets this in the context of paradigm changes in the field:

While there is a growing amount of data about the importance of legacy giving, two statistics about prospects stand out above the others:

70% of Americans and 80% of Canadians give to charity during their lifetimes

Fewer than 5% make a legacy gift

This discrepancy offers us an opportunity to reach more donors for legacy gifts than we thought were available, In fact, surprisingly, the majority of legacy gifts (both dollars and numbers) for almost all organizations come from donors who have not been major givers previously.

How could this be so?

Because those unable to make a major gift during their lifetimes can easily do so through their estates. So in the new paradigm, we realize that we need to reach out to a different group of potential donors, and reach out to them with new language.

As a result, we need to think more broadly right from the start about prospects: legacy gifts come from long-term supporters with a “heart connection” to the charity. Rather than a history of major gifts, longevity of involvement is usually the most important element in selecting a legacy prospect.

This involvement might be as a donor, but it also could be involvement as a volunteer, former board or staff, or member of the local community. And, often, these people may not be tracked in your prospect data at all!

For example, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, St. Anthony Dining Room, now in its seventh decade, receives a large sum in legacy gifts annually from people in the community who were not donors during their lifetimes.

So whom do you ask for a legacy gift?

Under the old planned giving paradigm, the question of whom to ask was moot because most organizations weren’t asking anyone for legacy gifts. For most of my career, my thinking — which many shared — was that estate planning, with its implicit association with death, is too delicate and personal to raise with supporters.

Instead marketing and communications tools should be used to attract bequests and planned gifts. (Planned giving colleagues in higher education and hospital settings, because of the intimacy of class reunions and patient/doctor relationships, were the exception to this rule.)

I have since changed my mind. In the new paradigm of legacy giving, the personal legacy ask is not only important, it is essential.

Before going into more detail on this, let’s go over some common vocabulary.

These terms help gift officers and other fundraisers to more accurately describe a given supporter’s connection to your organization. These terms track a donor’s legacy giving status throughout their connection to an organization.

Legacy status / terms defined

  • Supporter — anyone who helps your organization by making a gift, becoming a member, volunteering, speaking out, etc.
  • Prospect — a long-term supporter with a “heart” connection
  • Suspect — a prospect referred by an individual as someone to approach for a legacy ask
  • Legacy Ask — the one-on-one question, “Would you consider making a legacy gift?”
  • Qualified Lead — anyone who has responded to communications, marketing, or a legacy ask
  • Confirmed Gift — a qualified lead that has committed to a revocable gift, made an irrevocable gift, or been identified as the result of a previously unknown estate gift
  • Legacy Group Member — anyone who has accepted an organization’s invitation to join its recognition group designed to steward legacy donors
  • Stewardship — active contact over an extended period of time (at least annually) with those who have made confirmed gifts, regardless of whether there is a legacy group or whether the donor has chosen to join such a group

I use the word suspect with great caution and specificity, as the term can be unsettling at first. But suspect is an especially useful word in the context of your “suspecting” that someone would be receptive to a legacy ask.

Suspects are close to your organization — people with whom you or others have a relationship.

Solicitors will have more success with a suspect they know personally. However, third-party referrals can open doors when the solicitor does not have a direct connection to the suspect.

How do you build a suspect list?

First, staff, board members, and volunteer solicitors should review a legacy prospect list from your database and identify those whom they know personally. This is called the peer review method.

Your suspect list can be several hundred or even several thousand names. Before contacting promising suspects, ask the reviewer whether you can use her name as a referral in a letter to the suspect.

Here is a greatly underutilized way to build a suspect list: Every time you make a legacy ask, whether the response is “yes” or “no,” ask the suspect for names of other people to approach.

About half the time you will get one name; on occasion a suspect will provide several.

First contact, two-fers, and triple asks

There are two general approaches to contacting suspects: asking directly and requesting a visit through a letter.

The direct approach is more informal and works for those with whom you have a close relationship. Here you simply pick up the phone or send an email asking the supporter to get together to talk about building capacity for the long-term needs of the organization.

When you have reason to believe the supporter will respond better to a more formal approach, write a letter informing the suspect of your intent to get in touch to request a visit — and follow up promptly with a phone call.

In a two-fer scenario, you already have plans to meet with a suspect for another reason. By simply adding another five minutes to the conversation, you can lay the groundwork for making a legacy ask. This technique works especially well for executive directors, development staff in small or solo shops, and busy volunteers.

Ask for a few moments to discuss and identify your organization’s long-term priorities and what it needs to build a stronger future. This will help set up the conversation to make the legacy ask.

Settings in which a legacy ask can be combined to make more effective use of time include dual asks and triple asks. Both are greatly underutilized.

  • Use the dual ask when your organization is not engaged in a specific campaign. Sequence is important: first make the annual ask, then the legacy ask. Donors respect that you will not pepper them with piecemeal requests.
  • Use the triple ask in a campaign setting. Make your asks in the following order: campaign ask, annual ask, then legacy ask. This can be done in one meeting, with extensions as necessary.

Historically, a different tack has been taken toward dual asks made during capital campaigns. This was labeled comprehensive: first the capital ask, then annual ask. Smarter shops added a legacy ask to make this approach truly comprehensive.

Secondary literature still uses the term comprehensive campaign in a capital setting, restricting the ask to capital and annual. What’s comprehensive about that?

Making the legacy ask

After they’ve discussed their organization’s long-term and capacity-building needs with a suspect, I encourage clients to then ask, “Would you consider making your own legacy gift to help us build this future?” While the words may vary, using the qualifier “consider” makes this a somewhat less direct ask than one for a capital or annual fund gift.

In making a legacy ask, the objective is to expand the number of qualified leads. Roughly half of all qualified leads will become a confirmed gift over time. Conversion to a confirmed gift can take as little as a few months or as long as several years. It all has to do with when a qualified lead updates (more often) or creates (less often) an estate plan.

When someone tells you they will consider making a legacy gift, follow up with something like, “If I haven’t heard back from you in XX months, may I get back in touch?”

The key point here is that securing a legacy commitment can take time. It’s all about identifying qualified leads and determining when they are ready to act. The good news is there is no annual fund clock ticking.

Metrics for legacy giving programs

Historically, irrevocable gifts have carried too much weight in determining the success of planned giving programs. Board members, chief executives, finance officers, development directors, and dedicated planned giving staff overemphasize irrevocable gifts because of their visibility on financial statements.

Organizations that count amount certain bequests — that is, for a specific dollar amount — in campaigns are in a somewhat better position. Both CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) and the Partnership for Philanthropic Giving have guidelines for counting legacy gifts; however, practices still vary considerably, even within higher education.

Legacy giving, unfortunately, has not yet developed key or universal measurements. I suggest the following as important measurements for setting goals and evaluating success:

  • A decent-sized suspect pool
  • Sufficient qualified leads obtained on an annual basis. These should be segmented in the following areas: a) communications and marketing; b) legacy ask; and c) previously unknown gift from estate.
  • A total number of new gifts with the same segmentation as qualified leads. For most organizations, bequests will represent the overwhelming majority of legacy gifts (somewhere between 90 and 100 percent).

One fact I especially enjoy about our field is that there is an exception to just about every rule — even my own rule that dollar goals don’t work in well-run legacy giving programs. Indeed, at the American Cancer Society, each staff person has a dollar goal that works very well.

Their dollar goal is supported by other goals, including the number of asks and visits. They use a low average (~$30,000) for bequest commitments, which is based on decades of results.

Shifting to a culture of philanthropy

The phrase culture of philanthropy was used often in the nonprofit community in 2013. It refers to organizational values and practices that support and nurture development. It’s a major theme in the report UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising by CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. While the report does not refer to planned/legacy giving, its advice to break out of silos is certainly timely and relevant.

Shifting the focus to legacy giving does not mean we need to leave behind the excellent resources and continuing education for which our councils and national programs are so well known.

However, the 90% of those in our field who are new to legacy giving need resources outside the technical information we have historically provided.

Thank you for reading this analysis of the somewhat artificial divide between the old paradigm of planned giving and the new paradigm of legacy giving.

If you already operate in the new paradigm but still use the old name, consider embracing the new paradigm completely. If you still operate mostly or exclusively in the old paradigm, I hope this leaves you with new ideas to expand your practice.

About the Author

Greg Lassonde, CFRE, is an independent Legacy Giving Specialist/Consultant in Oakland, California. He has worked in a variety of nonprofits from KPFA Radio to his last staff position with San Francisco Symphony. He is a current board member of the Oakland Zoo Foundation, and a past board member of the Northern California Planned Giving Council.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

5 thoughts on “Surprise! Most Legacy Gifts DON’T Come from Major Donors

  1. I know one nonprofit university where trustees are required to have the university in their wills while they are on the board. Always seemed to me that as a trustee one might be worried about drinking the lemonade at board meetings. 🙂

  2. Greg, Thank you for this practical article that so well articulates how nonprofits should be thinking about and positioning legacy gift opportunities with their donors. Bravo! There is much work that needs to be done outside of the technical gift planning information. Leaders, especially in small shops, really need to begin these conversations, and you’ve outlined some great first steps! – Katrina Pierson HBH Consultants

  3. I’m one of these people who will be making two organizations very happy when my legacy gift arrives. I worry perhaps more than I should about the future and don’t want to give money away now when my genetics tell me I might live for an additional 25 years and my spouse for perhaps 35. I say this even though with a modest salary all my life, my frugal nature has accumulated $6 million dollars. I’ve identified two organizations that will receive this funding when my wife dies since I want her to benefit from the income.

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