Timing Is Everything: The Planned Giving Program Audit and Review, Part 2 | Sharpe Group
Posted September 16th, 2020

Timing Is Everything: The Planned Giving Program Audit and Review, Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, we outlined the reasons there has been an increased awareness in estate planning and planned giving and the importance of a planned giving audit for your organization. Here, we will explore how an audit can offer guidance on marketing, donor cultivation and communication and more.

Staff considerations. An audit should include a review of the use of staff time. Is there a standard time frame for responding to inquiries? Are there 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 you using the right language to encourage giving?

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 audit 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 I worked with discovered it had lost track of 50% 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 audit is best done by an outside expert with wide experience. Internal staff are too involved with the current system and approaches to provide independent evaluation and will often miss things that are often obvious to an outside professional.

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.

Summary. In planned giving, expectations and results don’t always match. Issues not addressed can easily worsen and result in missed opportunities. An outside audit 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.

Click here to learn more about how a planned giving assessment can benefit your organization. ■

John Jensen


John Jensen is a Sharpe Group senior vice president and senior consultant based in Washington, DC. He has conducted planned giving program audits for numerous charities across the country.

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