Bequest Giving Should Be Part of Every Nonprofit’s Fundraising
By Kris Willcox

Kris Willcox
Kris Willcox
Although bequests are often associated with super wealthy donors who support large institutions, smaller nonprofits should develop sustainable bequest giving programs that appeal to the needs of their donors, especially as Baby Boomers prepare to distribute their wealth.

If you or your board of directors has been hesitant to develop a planned giving program, consider these myth-busting facts that could ultimately lead to a rise in your fundraising totals.

You do not have to be an attorney or a CPA to successfully, and responsibly, encourage bequest gifts.

Some fundraisers feel they can’t talk with donors about bequests because this would amount to giving legal or financial advice. While it is true that we must carefully avoid giving such advice to our donors, we can provide them with information that they and their advisors can use in crafting a gift, such as sample bequest language and inspiring stories of other bequest gifts that your organization has received in the past. Many organizations place such resources on their websites or are happy to share their print materials with you.

Bequest giving tends to boost annual giving, not the reverse.

Sometimes bequests are viewed as “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” or worse, as an encroachment on critical annual fund or major gift dollars. However, when donors create a bequest they tend to increase their annual commitment. After all, they’ve indicated that your organization is as important to them as their own family and friends, so they’ll want to protect the long-term investment they’ve made in your cause.

Bequest are not just for dead people.

It may sound silly, but as fundraisers we can be inhibited by our own fears about death and dying when we try to engage donors in conversations about bequest giving. If we don’t examine those attitudes, donors will pick up on our discomfort. If you feel a bit spooked by the topic, remember that bequests are arranged by living people who are making a powerful statement today about their values and their hopes for the future. For many donors a bequest is the most important gift they’ll ever create and gives them a great feeling of satisfaction. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for you, the fundraiser, to engage donors and understand what matters to them.

Bequests are not just for wealthy people, either.

You’ve probably dealt with this misconception in some form already: “My small gift isn’t going to make a difference.” What is true of the annual fund is also true of bequests: gifts come in all sizes, and they all matter. Over the years, bequests of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars are going to have a large impact and you’ll be surprised at how substantial bequests can be. Five percent of an estate may not sound like a lot, but if that donor has a house, a car, and some retirement savings, the bequest that the donor felt was too small to matter could be quite significant.

Your donors are learning about bequests through other organizations, and that’s a good thing.

Think for a moment about all the organizations your current board president has contact with. She may be in touch with an alma mater (or two), a religious community, a local food pantry, a museum, a theater, and a favorite conservation group. Some of those agencies (or possibly all of them) have bequest giving programs. You don’t have to compete with her other priorities; rather you can benefit from their work by reminding her that your organization also welcomes bequests and you’d be glad to provide her information if she needs it. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Smaller organizations can have an edge on the “big shops.”

Big institutions might be able to afford more lavish donor events and snappier lapel pins, but you can provide donors a unique experience: the chance to have a dramatic impact on the life of a smaller organization. You may also be able to provide a more personalized level of stewardship than a larger institution, something that can be particularly important in bequest giving.

A bequest received in 20 years must be cultivated today.

When budgets are tight and fundraising goals must be met, it’s hard to keep an eye on the distant horizon. But if your organization is going to receive bequest gifts in the future, seeds should be planted now. Many of your constituents will create or revise their will at some point and are giving thought to the bequest gifts they might create. Shouldn’t your organization be on that important to-do list?

Here are four practical steps to get your bequest program started:

1) Start at the top: With many demands on your time, you must make the case to your superiors and the board that this is worthwhile work. Also, some of your best prospects are board members who have a personal investment in the organization.

2) Start locally: Find out if your agency has received bequests or been notified of bequest intentions (a gift included in a living person’s will). Learn who, when, why and—where appropriate—how much. Document and share those stories. For example: “This year, we were honored to receive a gift from the estate of Diane Jones, a long-time supporter of our work.” This not only celebrates the gift, it also suggests to others that they could create a similar one. Be sure to obtain permission if there are any privacy concerns.

3) Start simply: A page of basic information about bequest giving and a formal way of saying “thank you” to people who have included your organization in their plans are helpful at the outset. Create a single page that describes bequest giving and provides donors and their advisors with basics such as the organization’s legal name and sample wording for bequests (for a useful example, visit the “How To Give” page at Remember, you are not providing legal advice or offering to write anyone’s will; that’s for the donor’s attorney alone. Your formal thanks could be a handwritten note and phone call, or even membership in a legacy society. Whatever your procedure, make it meaningful and make it consistent.

4) Start now #147; Set yourself a goal of three or four conversations this quarter that touch on bequest giving. This could be as simple as chatting with your board chair about her knowledge of bequests, or providing bequest information to a long-time friend of the agency. Gifts like this don’t happen overnight, but you’ll be surprised where these conversations take you. You, and your successors, will be glad you took time to begin this important work.

Kris Willcox is a planned giving consultant in the Boston area with a special interest in the needs of small organizations. For more information, email her at

August 2011