Posted November 1st, 1999

In Your Donor’s Voice – Part 1

Advertisers have long known the power of positive customer testimonials to attract other consumers and sales. In the commercial context, where “buyer beware” is all too often very good advice, a sincerely-told and uncompensated testimonial can be far more persuasive than the seller’s asking you to purchase its product or service.

The use of testimonials has proved effective in the very different charitable context as well. In our experience, the most successful gift planning efforts have found that the good words of present and prior donors can be very helpful indeed.

Testimonials in gift planning marketing

A good gift planning marketing strategy begins with providing low-key information about the variety of gift planning options your organization or institution offers. A concern with this approach, however, is that a steady stream of gift planning scenarios may run the risk of seeming overly technical, tedious, or sterile. Testimonials can be a wonderful complement to other donor education efforts.

For example, suppose you run a story in your gift planning newsletter about a couple who created a gift annuity for the benefit of your organization. This testimonial will not only illustrate an inspiring gift story, but it can serve as a backdrop against which to explain what a gift annuity is and how such a gift fits in with the real-life financial plans of a real-life couple.

Through testimonials you allow donors to explain the gift plans to other donors in their own voices. Often, it is the human side of the story and not the technical planning aspects that captures another donor’s interest. In other words, when communicating gift planning opportunities, put as much emphasis on the who and why as you do on the what, when, and how of the gift. The what, when, and how are pretty much the same for everyone—it is the who and why that sets your organization apart.

A call to action

Another challenge facing the development executive is the fact providing gift planning information is one thing, but “asking for” or “closing” the gift is quite another. In fact, we believe that it is usually inappropriate and almost always counter-productive to push to “close” most planned gifts. Is it inappropriate for a staff member to call and ask, “Have you been to your attorney yet?” or “Hurry up and sign those trust documents before the end of the month!” Another donor, however, can say in a testimonial story: “We went to our attorney and made new wills and anyone who believes in this organization like we do should do the same without delay.”

Peer encouragement

It’s no secret that in many outright major gift efforts, such as a traditional capital campaign, the use of peer identification and influence is central to the process. Friends are routinely asked to put friendly pressure on friends to make a first-time gift or upgrade their giving.

This form of pressure is considered entirely inappropriate, however, in deferred gift planning efforts that involve a donor’s overall financial and estate plans, personal family issues, health concerns, etc. Indeed, the use of volunteers in direct donor contact to discuss options such as charitable bequests is very rare due to the confidential nature of these discussions.

The testimonial story can be used, however, to provide peer encouragement. Your featured donor can say, in effect, “We did it, and you should, too!” We have never seen a negative reaction to such a story. Also, because most people falsely believe that only the very wealthy leave charitable bequests and enter into other types of planned gifts, the details of the featured donor’s own life can relay the message that regular, average people can participate in this wonderful form of giving.

The publisher of Give & Take is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Give & Take may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

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