Posted December 1st, 2009

In Your Donor’s Voice, Part 1

Advertisers have long known the power of positive customer testimonials to attract other customers 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 a seller’s pitch to have you purchase its product or service.

The use of testimonials has proved effective in the world of charitable giving as well. In our experience, the most successful gift planning programs 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 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 complex gift planning scenarios may run the risk of seeming overly technical, tedious, or sterile. While it is sometimes necessary to provide details about the technical aspects of a plan, testimonials from donors can be a wonderful complement.

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 also 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 an actual 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 the interest of a peer. 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 set your organization apart.

A call to action

Another challenge facing the development executive is the fact that providing gift planning information is one thing, but “asking for” or “closing” the gift is quite another. In fact, some believe that it is normally inappropriate and almost always counter-productive to push to “close” most planned gifts. Most would agree it is inappropriate for a staff member to call and ask, “Have you been to your attorney, faced your mortality, and incurred a legal fee yet?” or “Hurry up and sign those trust documents before the end of our fiscal year!” Another donor, however, can say in a testimonial story: “We went to our attorney and made new wills. It was well worth the modest cost and brought us peace of mind. 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 can be an integral part of the process. Loyal supporters are routinely asked to approach friends to make a gift in a campaign setting or upgrade their regular giving.

This tactic may be less appropriate, 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 normally very rare due to the confidential nature of these discussions.

Testimonials 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.

Next month: How to gather testimonial stories from both living donors and surviving friends and family of benefactors.

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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