An Outside Look? The Planned Giving Assessment and Review | Sharpe Group
Posted October 1st, 2012

An Outside Look? The Planned Giving Assessment and Review

I recently had an energy audit completed on the home I built 18 years ago. At that time, it was designed to be a tight, energy-efficient house that went well beyond normal standards. While the house is still in good shape, the expert found an amazing range of issues and energy losses that were occurring right in front of my eyes.

The energy audit told me what to focus on first, the realistic savings I could expect and where my fastest payback would be. It also pointed out what had been done well and what needed some work.

What is a planned giving program assessment?

Much like my home’s energy audit, a planned giving program assessment is a comprehensive review of an organization’s efforts in this area. It identifies strengths and weaknesses and looks closely at constituency marketing and gifts that have been received, while bench-marking against national norms.

Internal support, realistic expectations

Many senior development executives lack significant experience with planned giving during their career. They often don’t have a frame of reference to evaluate planned gift development efforts through the full cycle—from marketing to final results.

When we don’t have good information, we all tend to fill in our knowledge with what can be erroneous assumptions. In an area that is often counterintuitive, these intuitive assumptions can be counterproductive.

A program assessment will lay out facts and create realistic expectations. Armed with solid facts based on an organization’s actual experience, correct decisions become much easier for everyone.

Gold in your estate files

The starting point of any assessment is to look at your donors by relevant factors. Knowing who the donors are—especially your best planned giving prospects—is key.

A vital source of marketing information can be found in past estate files. A good assessment can help you find information that works for you. The assessment will help you learn:

  • If you are asking the right questions and gathering the right data.
  • Whether there is a difference between types of bequest gifts.
  • Whether estates are being handled systematically and proactively.

Staff considerations

An assessment should include a review of the use of staff time. Is there a standard time frame for responding to inquiries? Is there a staff dedicated to planned giving or is it integrated with major gifts responsibilities? How much time is focused on donor contacts and visits? Is the staffing level appropriate to the constituency? What activity is handled internally and what is outsourced?

Answers to these and other questions will serve as the basis for recommendations designed to lead to improved results.

Evaluating activity and results

Is the activity focused largely on routine bequests or on more complex gift arrangements? Are you evaluating results systematically? Planned giving staff should normally be evaluated on factors other than current revenue. Results need to be evaluated based on short and long-term metrics.

Marketing to your audience

Marketing needs to match your target constituency. Materials and approaches that may be wonderful for younger donors may simply not work for seniors age 70+ or more wealthy donors.

Are your materials primarily print or electronic? Are you taking a technical or an educational approach? Are you targeting donors or advisors? Certain approaches work well in some situations but will be very wrong in others.

Legacy society

If you have a legacy society, the assessment will examine current and deceased members. This group’s age and demographics speak to the health of your program. How many of your expectancies actually result in gifts? Is the legacy society growing or shrinking? What is the average age of legacy society members? Is it stable or is it changing?


Some believe: Once in the will, always in the will. This may once have been true, but not today. Donors regularly add and remove charities as they prepare their last will, a process that often occurs well into a donor’s 80s and even 90s. If your results are not what you would like, the assessment will help identify why.

Donor cultivation and contact

Do you stay in touch with your planned giving donors? Is there an adequate contact management system? If not, you may find you are being removed from as many wills each year as you are being included in. Your donors give to a variety of charities, and losing touch can be damaging.

For example, one organization found it had lost track of 50 percent of bequest expectancies. Donors were falling off the active file and heard nothing from the charity. Sadly, bequests were actually received from very few of their expectancies due to this neglect.

Inside vs. outside

Many have found that an effective assessment is best done by an outside professional. An internal assessment is usually too involved to provide independent evaluation and will often miss things that are more apparent to an outside professional.

Beware of those with long experience in other fundraising disciplines who have recently expanded into planned giving. Ask for references from a number of similar programs they have successfully served over a period of five years or longer and expect these to be forthcoming. This is a specialty area where expertise in one facet of fundraising does not translate easily to another. The stakes are too high to be a “starter client.”

The Sharpe Group has extensive experience with a wide variety of nonprofit missions and can raise issues directly and diplomatically with management. With experience from reviewing a wide variety of gift planning programs and their results, we are able to determine what is normal, what is excellent and what is problematic. A typical planned giving cycle runs five or more years, so long-term experience is critical to providing correct recommendations in the short term.


In planned giving, expectations and results don’t always match. Issues not addressed can easily worsen and result in missed opportunities. An outside assessment can help management tune up a program and ensure your donors don’t forget how much they love your mission when they are considering the philanthropic aspect of their estate and financial plans.

Just as I learned in my energy audit to better insulate my crawl spaces to keep out the cold, a good planned giving assessment can help you understand and refine your program before it is too late.

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The publisher of Sharpe Insights 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 Sharpe Insights 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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