Much has been written on the importance of effectively communicating the concept of charitable bequests to donors and prospective donors to charitable organizations and institutions of many different types. Why? Because gifts by bequest have consistently comprised the vast majority of gift planning funds, even for the most sophisticated gift planning programs — as much as 70% or more of realized funds for many programs.
Much of the focus of discussion has surrounded the process of encouraging charitable bequests through effective file segmentation as well as utilizing appropriate communication strategies designed to motivate potential bequests. Debates on how to record bequest commitments, how to determine the potential income from bequests, budget issues, and other functions that relate to the mechanics of bequest development have also been the topic of many articles and other communications in recent years.
While it can be interesting and is important to work on and discuss the many nuances of a planned gift development effort, it can be easy to overlook some basic principles that are important to success.
Three stages of bequest giving
It can be helpful to think of bequest gift efforts in terms of three time periods: before the bequest is made, after notification from a donor that he or she either intends to leave a bequest or would consider leaving a bequest to your organization or institution, and after the death of the benefactor and receipt of funds.
Before the bequest
The first step in nurturing a successful bequest program is carefully managing relationships with regular donors today. When a donor is acquired, it is important to have a clear system in place that says thank you to all that give, regardless of the size of the gift. Recognition societies, listing donors names where appropriate, and keeping donors informed about your organization’s progress are other activities that make the difference in retaining donors and building the types of relationships necessary to motivate bequests.
After notification of intention
The next time someone notifies you that they have included your organization or institution in their will, think about what that means. Who is usually mentioned in a person’s will? Family most likely, and perhaps close friends. By remembering your organization in his or her will, a donor has in some respects elevated your cause to the status of family.
Recently I heard a presentation by a university president to a group of alumni on this very subject. He stated that he believed a gift through one’s estate plans is “a profound act of love and a profound act of confidence in our institution.” When a donor takes steps to arrange such a profound act of generosity, gift planners must be poised to acknowledge the bequest with the same thoughtfulness in which it was made.
In many cases you will never have the opportunity to thank donors who include charitable gifts in their wills and other long-term plans. Recent studies, including one published last fall by NCPG, indicate that many donors prefer not to share their estate plans with others. Consider, on the other hand, the mindset of those who do decide to inform you of their decision.
It is vitally important that such persons be thanked in a timely and appropriate manner. If, for example, your average bequest is valued at $35,000, respond as if each notification is equivalent to a current gift at that level.
After death of benefactor
This is an area that is most often neglected — and understandably so. The estate administration process is often handled by the legal or other administrative offices within the organization, in some cases with little or no communication with the development staff. In some cases family members feel that they, too, have in some respects made a gift to the organization because the funds given to charity would most likely have otherwise been theirs. For this reason the staff members and legal counsel who are interacting with family members should be sensitive to the donor relations aspects of the estate settlement process. Programs that successfully integrate the estate settlement process with development efforts often find that a bequest can be the beginning of a long relationship with surviving family members who may decide to continue the investment in the organization made by their parent, sibling, or other loved one.
I recall an instance several years ago when I was working as a development executive for a nonprofit organization. One day a check was received for $1 million. It was a specific bequest that was restricted for use in a particular state. No one in the organization knew or had prior knowledge of the benefactor.
A building campaign was under way and these funds were just the amount needed to complete the project. The board approved the use of the bequest to finish the building. While very pleased with the gift, the staff member in charge of the program told me that he simply could not rest at night. He knew that legally there was no problem in using the funds as the board had directed, but he really wanted to know what the donor had in mind when making a gift of that magnitude.
He decided to contact the executor of the estate, who happened to be the son of the benefactor. The staff member explained the plans for the bequest and then asked, “Before moving forward, I want to make sure the use of these funds in this manner is what your father would have wanted ”. The son indicated that he thought the father would approve of the funds being used for a building. His next question was, “Do you think your father would have liked to have the building named in his honor?” The son’s answer was yes.
After the building was completed, a dedication ceremony was held which involved the surviving family members of the donor. During the ceremony, the family presented another check — larger than the original bequest — to handle the future needs of maintaining the building that was named for their loved one. This is just one example of what can result when attention is paid to surviving loved ones following a bequest, and they are treated as the major donors they often feel they are.
Personal treatment is key
As I mentioned earlier, we must keep in mind the highly intimate and personal nature of the charitable bequest. Whether from the large estate of a high-profile philanthropist or the modest estate of a retired teacher, a bequest to charity is often a donor’s single largest, most thoughtful charitable gift in their lifetime. This is the reason why gift planners should attend to bequest donors with extreme care.
Consider taking the time to arrange for systems and procedures that result in establishing communication between internal departments that handle bequest administration and the development function, a system that acknowledges family members appropriately and creates an environment that can give rise to personal relationships with them and their advisors. Attention paid to this process can pay surprising dividends for the time invested. A bequest to charity is often the single largest, most thoughtful charitable gift a donor can make.