These and other questions related to timing are important and deserve close attention. As bequests are often the largest source of planned gift income, it may be helpful to focus special attention on this gift opportunity. Many of the same principles will apply to other gifts as well.
Note also that the same timing concepts will normally apply when considering communications via broadcast e-mail and scheduling gatherings of donors and prospective donors.
Reviewing the annual calendar
What time of year is best to communicate about bequests and other gift planning topics? While there is no right or wrong answer, experience teaches us that certain times may be better than others, if only as the result of the process of elimination.
January: Many programs avoid mailing in early January. Although it is a new year, information pertaining to estate planning may not be well received on the heels of holiday celebrations. This is also the time when many persons have just received a great deal of year-end fund-raising mail and may need a bit of time to “rest.” Many have discovered, however, that the latter part of the month can be a very good time to communicate on the subject of bequests. Depending on the part of country and climate, people may be spending more time indoors and have extra time to read during this time of the year.
February through May: The late winter and early spring are very popular times for communications on bequests and other planned gifts. As winter ends and spring arrives, many believe that older persons may be more comfortable with estate planning issues. Early spring is also a time that can be especially well suited to fund-raising efforts built around a theme of memorializing friends and loved ones. Remember, too, that late spring is a popular time for reviewing estate plans prior to summer travel. In fact, studies have shown that a large percentage of wills that leave bequests were executed in the month of February.
June and July: Some programs try to avoid sending planned gift communications during midsummer, especially on subjects that appeal to relatively younger people who may be traveling more this time of year and are less receptive to gift planning communications. Some organizations will take a contrarian view and mail during summer precisely because many others do not. The hope is to get noticed by virtue of less competition in the mailbox.
August: For planned gift communications, early August is similar to June and July. Late August, however, can be a better time. As summer winds down in northern climates and other regions experience the “dog days” of August, communications on various gift planning tools may be well received.
September and October: The early fall can be an excellent time for communications on the subject of bequests and other topics that involve a consideration of mortality. As leaves begin to change color and cooler temperatures return, this time can also be a season of anticipation and planning. As the fall is traditionally a time for storing up for the winter, this may be one of the better times to talk about gift annuities, charitable trusts, and other plans that involve making preparations for future economic well-being while making charitable gifts.
November and December: Traditionally, these months are very busy for many fund-raising programs. As there is more focus on current gifts at year-end for many programs, we find that some will prefer not to focus attention on bequests and deferred gifts at the end of the year. An exception might be made for early November just before the heaviest emphasis on year-end gifts. For those programs in which different persons are responsible for current and deferred gift communications, it can be particularly important to coordinate efforts at this time of the year.
The last two weeks of December are not usually good times to talk about estate planning. For many, this is the height of the holiday season and not a time that people wish to reflect upon their mortality.
This brings us full circle, back to January where we began. As we can see, an argument can be made that there are pros and cons to planned gift communications at just about any point in the year.
If you are charged with planning a periodic program featuring quarterly communications, by process of elimination you might decide that February and May are two of the best months. To round out an annual schedule you might add late August and early November to arrive at a quarterly schedule that would minimize the risk of communicating at the least opportune times.
Remember to review your institution’s overall communication schedule so as to avoid unintended multiple exposures through the mail, Internet, and other media.
Does one time fit all?
But why not just pick one time a year and expose the whole constituency at once? There are a number of reasons why this might not be wise.
First, there are different types of people within your constituency who will respond to different messages. In the area of bequests, for example, some need to learn more about the importance of making a will in the first place. Others, who may be more sophisticated in their planning, need to be reminded of the importance of keeping their wills up to date. Still others have up-to-date plans but need more motivation to include charitable dispositions they may not have previously considered for any number of reasons. And some need practical guidance about the basic steps to take in choosing and contacting an attorney and guidelines for starting to make their plans.
Second, there are events occurring in people’s lives on a regular basis. As marriages, births, marital separations, and deaths occur over time, different people will be receptive to estate and gift planning information at different times. All evidence indicates that people make or review estate plans according to their own schedules, based on events in their own lives. Therefore, a lower-key but very consistent message is preferable to a big splash once a year.
Third, with limited staff time, it may be wise to “spread out” communications. This gives maximum time to use available resources to follow up with those who are interested while taking care of other important duties.
Importance of continuity
Given a choice, therefore, between exposing an entire constituency of 20,000 persons once per year or reaching a group of 5,000 older, long-term donors quarterly, many experienced professionals will choose the latter course of action. Budgetary considerations are very similar, but periodic programs have proven to be very effective over the years for many who are actively involved in gift planning efforts.
As stated at the outset, there is no right or wrong way to approach the subject of timing, but we trust the thoughts shared here will be useful as a starting point in your planning process.
Note: Learn more about how best to communicate with your constituents in one of Sharpe’s popular seminars. Visit www.sharpenet.com/seminars for more information.