Posted February 1st, 1998

Saying Thank You for Bequest Commitments

Much of the discussion surrounding the process of encouraging charitable bequests is devoted to ways to accomplish effective file segmentation, motivating donors to include charitable commitments in their wills, debates on how to count bequest commitments, and other concerns that relate to the “mechanics” of bequest development.

We frequently find that very little time is devoted to the process of saying “thank you” to donors who have made bequest commitments through their wills of other long-range estate plans. With so many planned giving opportunities available today, it will be increasingly important that something as simple as expressing thanks be accomplished in appropriate ways.

Importance of timing

When someone notifies you that they have included you in their will, think about what this means. A high level of donative intent and trust is required to make a decision of this magnitude. So personal a matter is one’s will that many persons will not ever divulge their commitment to you.

For those who do, therefore, it is vital that they be thanked in a timely manner. If your average bequest is $35,000, respond as if each notification that a person has made a bequest, or is considering making one, is equivalent to a gift at that level and act accordingly.

Who should say “thank you”?

The person chosen to thank a donor for a bequest commitment should be carefully chosen, and will not necessarily be the same party in every instance. In many cases, it will be appropriate for a development executive to take on this responsibility. In other cases, a staff member outside the development program may be the best choice to express appreciation.

Occasionally, a retired staff member such as a former CEO known to the donor, or a key volunteer, might be the best choice.

Call or write?

The means of communication is, again, a judgment call. If you know the person notifying you of the bequest or other estate commitment, you may want to pick up the phone and make a call yourself. If you or others on staff do not know the donor personally, a letter prior to a call may be more appropriate. If in doubt, write before calling.

If practical, a personal visit may be welcomed. Don’t be surprised or put off, however, if a donor declines the opportunity for personal involvement. Take your cue from the donor and respect his or her wishes.

Bequest recognition societies

Many programs have incorporated special recognition societies to honor those who have made bequests and other planned gift commitments. Such societies can serve a number of useful purposes. They can also help increase bequest income over time.

Not all persons who notify you of bequest intentions will want to be publicly recognized, however, so be prepared to respect the wishes of “silent partners” who wish to remain anonymous for any number of reasons.

To accommodate such requests, have a mechanism in place that will allow them to be listed anonymously.

Working with “blind” notifications

In the same vein, sometimes a donor will choose to notify you of a bequest intention through an attorney. If the donor opts to take this route, they may wish to remain anonymous even though they prefer that you know the gift will eventually be received for your future planning purposes.

Thank the attorney for the notification, in this case. Then write an appropriate letter of thanks and ask the attorney to pass it along if he or she thinks the donor would be receptive.

Many of the principles applicable to charitable bequest commitments will apply to charitable trusts, gift annuities, and other similar gifts. In the case of irrevocable deferred gift commitments, however, the gift planner typically has developed a close, personal involvement with the donor prior to completion of the gift. In this situation, saying “thank you” is simply a natural end to the gift planning process.

Bequest notifications are more frequently received from persons with whom there has been little or no prior contact, however. So, it is understandable that inadequate attention is sometimes given to the process of thanking these benefactors.

Obviously there are many more nuances involved in effectively expressing appreciation for bequest commitments. These are only a few of the many considerations to keep its mind. A future article in this series will address steps that good program managers take to thank surviving family members after a bequest has been received.

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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