Studies Reveal Profile of Typical Bequest Donor | Sharpe Group
Posted June 1st, 1997

Studies Reveal Profile of Typical Bequest Donor

Recent studies of bequest donors to a number of our client organizations reveal interesting information regarding the typical profiles of these donors.

This information is based on an in-depth analysis of a total of neatly 1,000 bequests to a number of different organizations and institutions. The information was gleaned from the wills of the deceased, donor files, and gift records where available.

We believe the information is of broad interest, since we have found little difference in bequest donor profiles from one organization to another. What sets bequest donors apart appear to be driven primarily by factors such as age at death, gender of the donor, and marital status, among others.

Gift history

There appears to be no pattern to the gifts made prior to death other than the fact that most bequests appear to come from relatively long-term donors. Exceptions include health-related organizations that may first become involved with a donor later in life.

It seems to be rare for a donor who has made only one or two gifts to include an organization in his or her will. Studies reveal that most bequest donors will have been donors for three or more years at the time they make the decision to include an organization in their will.

While it is true that bequests often seem to come from “non-donors,” our experience indicates that many of these individuals were donors at some time in the past, even though they may no longer be on the data base. In support of this conclusion, we have found that organizations with gift history going back the most number of years find the lowest percentage of bequests coming from “non-donors.” (We have had the pleasure of working with at least one organization with detailed gift records on their database dating back to the 1940s!)

Another clear pattern is that the size of gifts during life is not related to the size of a bequest. In fact, some studies have shown an inverse relationship between the total amount of gifts during life and the size of the eventual bequest.

How old are the wills?

After studying scores of organizations’ files, we can say with confidence that for almost all organizations, the majority of bequests will come from wills that were executed within four years of death. Upwards of 75% of bequests come from wills that had been executed within seven years of death, and it is rare for a will to be more than ten years old at the time of death. This is why some commentators assert that it takes only three to five years for a planned giving program to show results.

Lapsed donors?

We are frequently asked whether to market the concept of charitable bequests to lapsed donors. Perhaps it makes sense to include recently lapsed donors — those whose last gift has been within the last 18 months. Our studies indicate that most donors who leave charitable bequests cease their current giving at about the same time as they make their last will.

Age of bequest donors

An examination of bequest donors’ ages at the time they make their wills, and at death, sheds light on the reasons behind the factors discussed above. For most organizations studied, the average age at the time the will was made falls in the 75 to 85 age range, and the average age at death falls in the 80 to 90 age range.

For the last two files we studied, the average age at death in both cases was 85 and the median age was 86, meaning that in those cases more than half of the bequest donors were over the age of 86 at the time of death.

Gender of bequest donors

We found only one instance where bequest donors were other than 60-75% female. It occurred at an organization that deals with issues almost exclusively male-related. Historically all-male colleges typically find most of their bequests come from women. Women are statistically more likely to outlive their spouses, and they are thus more likely to make the final disposition of the family’s assets. This trend has become even more pronounced since the introduction of the unlimited marital deduction in the early 1980s, under the provisions of which wealthy persons are encouraged to leave all assets to the surviving spouse.

Another interesting observation regarding gender and bequests is that organizations with an unusually high proportion of older male donors report that they are not included in the wills of many donors who had told them that the organization had been named in their will. What is going on here? Were the donors telling the truth? Yes. In fact, in all likelihood, the charities were in the man’s will as contingent beneficiaries.

In most cases, however, a married man’s wife will survive him and inherit most, if not all, of the estate. The charitable designation is never triggered in the will of the first to die. Be wary, therefore, of relying to a great extent on “bequest” notifications from married men!

How long to close estates?

Interestingly, smaller bequests (under $25,000) tend to be distributed within one year of death. Larger estates distribute on an average of two years, and the time period can sometimes be much longer. For this reason, the first results of aggressive bequest awareness programs will be larger numbers of small, specific bequests. The real payoff from efforts in this area (in the form of larger, residuary estates) will often not be realized for one or two additional years after initial results are noticed.


The statistics cited herein are a brief summary of a great deal of data. If you are surprised by the statistics, study your last 50 to 100 estates and build your own analysis. After doing so, take a look at your marketing efforts and you may he surprised to learn how you can fine tune your pro- gram, thus increasing the efficiency of your planned gift development efforts.

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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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