How to develop a successful planned giving program

From a talk by Susan DameGreene, President of BIPSTER

There are four key elements to a successful planned giving program:

  1. Identify
  2. Cultivate
  3. Solicit
  4. Thank


Figure out who is interested in planned giving. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ, you’ll find the donors in your own backyard. Just take a look around you for the best bequest donors.

This includes all donors; both current and those recently lapsed. Then move on to all vendors, all employees, all volunteers and anyone connected with your nonprofit.

“What?” I hear you say, “They don’t have any money!”

Well, the gardener at a certain school left the largest single bequest every given to that school. Not all money is obvious. I have worked for over 20 years in Planned Giving and also have about 11 years as Trust Officer, where I planned and/or settled over 400 estates. One noteworthy thing I’ve learned is that people with money can be very discreet about it. Never underestimate a donor’s ability and propensity to give.

My old boss at the American National Red Cross, Brendan Haggerty, told me this bit of planned giving folk wisdom: when donors give bequests, they often equal or exceed lifetime giving with their bequests. He could cite hundreds if not thousands of instances where that had happened during his 18 years as head of Planned Giving for ANRC. I heard an enormous number of them over lunch, on coffee breaks and in the myriad of presentations we did around the US.

He loved one in particular: One chapter of ARC (they shall remain nameless) had a donor who organized and paid for a major event every year for many years. It was the primary fundraiser for this chapter. When this donor died unexpectedly, the chapter was surprised to learn that she had left no bequest to them. When the chapter exec asked her husband why they had not received a bequest, the husband responded, “We didn’t know you took bequests – you never asked us.”
How did you get to where you are now? You asked to be hired, maybe not in so many words, but the job didn’t just jump out at you. This bequest ask is easier since it’s not for you personally.

Why are bequests so popular? In part, that’s because once they die, the donors seldom need money anymore. I know you’ve heard all the bad jokes about taking it with you, but as Conrad Teitell, says “No one has ever come back from the dead to tell me how much fun it is to leave a gift at death.”

In this uncertain world, with our present shaky economy, bequests may turn out to be the biggest phenomenon in planned giving. We may all need our money until we die, too, because we are all living longer and medical expenses are skyrocketing:

To get to the donors, use the resources you have at hand to start with. Computerized donor records and searches are best, but not all of us have those.

There are lots of simple ways to do this. Start with a tag line – Leave a Lasting Legacy – Remember our nonprofit in your will or estate plan.

Put it on all the materials you can w/your name and phone # – like your newsletter, flyers, bulletin boards; overprint it on your stationary, on the back of envelopes etc.

Do a manual sort of donors for the best prospects – who’s most active – how long? – look first at those most involved.

Concentrate on 65s and over. Why? It sounds crass, but you’ll get a result sooner since they will die sooner.

Remember to look at volunteers, staff, board, etc. (even vendors, contractors and any service provider-anyone connected to your nonprofit).


Treat them like family, only better – keep them happy and informed:

Send them newsletters, invite them to occasions, this list is endless.

Use your imagination and charm. I know you have lots of charm – otherwise you wouldn’t have this job. Think about when you were dating your current spouse (my, times have changed, haven’t they. I used to say your spouse). Remember how easy that was to be very nice and remember how much you got out of it (I hope!). If you can do that with the donors, you’ll develop a good working relationship, too. You can skip that kissing part.

The donor wants to be treated as valuable and, you know what – they are valuable! We could not do any of the worthwhile work we do without the donors. Moreover, without the donors, we would not have a job! They, in essence are our customers. We are enticing them to ‘buy a piece of history’ or my personal favorite slogan – “Leave a lasting legacy- Remember our nonprofit in your will or estate plan.”

Send a preliminary letter asking directly for a bequest, with a response device. This lets the donors self select and that way, you know those who want to be called on. It is much easier on our egos to call donors who are self qualified as leads and, you’ll get a better result and not waste your time.

Do a presentation to your Board, complete with handouts explaining Planned Giving and asking each of them to name your nonprofit in their wills. Or if you have the money, hire a consultant to do a presentation to your Board explaining Planned Giving and asking each of them to name your nonprofit in their wills

Then, request the Board Members help in getting other donors to name you.

Get out of the office and see those that respond. Cultivate to determine their interest in your nonprofit

Brad Johnson, who was my first boss in my Trust Department days used to say “The bee that sticks around the hive doesn’t bring in the honey.”

He said other things, too, most of which are not for print.

Find out their birthday and send them a card

Call each one and ask when their birthday is and, while you’re on the phone, tell them how important they are to your nonprofits’ efforts.

Travel to get to them ‘over hill and dale’. Some of them live there – just beyond the mailbox with a dent. More than one little old lady has given me directions like that.

Offer free advice in Major and Planned Giving

Do seminars. Obviously not my favorite, but many have had great luck with this.

Send Thank You, Birthday cards, and Thanksgiving cards. This is a great way to thank them for their gifts and you will probably be the only Thanksgiving card they get.


Ask them for a gift. This does seem hard at first glance. But if you have been cultivating them as I just told you to in the last paragraph, you’ll know exactly the right time to ask. Remember when you were expecting your first baby and asked the doctor “How will I know when it’s time to go to the hospital?” She replied, “Don’t worry – you’ll know.” and, in fact, you did know.

As the relationship between you and the donor progresses, you’ll know when to ask. Most times, the donor tells me! Our donors may be old, but they are plenty smart and they do know why you are there.

Many will tell you with that first response device you sent with that lovely ask letter. If you forgot, see a) under CULTIVATE. Now, I never ask the size of the bequest because I feel it is like asking somebody’s dress size- I think it is inappropriate. Donors do change the amount of bequests. More often than not, they move it upwards if we do our job right. Then there you are with egg on your face since you turned in that report that gave the wrong amount. Lots of other Planned Giving nonprofits do ask and even honor donors based on size of the bequest. Pick your own path here – ask others at similar institutions what they do. That’s one of the best parts about being in the Planned Giving Family. Almost all PG folk will share their ideas with you. And as for borrowing an idea or two, that’s the point of this article. CASE actually stands for Council for Advancement and Support of Education, but we jokingly say it stands for Copy And Steal Everything! Check out their website.

I find that, once a donor has told us that we are named, then I send out a ‘voluntary bequest donor questionnaire’ and some will fill it out and return it. Many donors want to remain silent about the gift for reasons of confidentiality. You know, like the old saying about the three most important things about any real estate – location, location and location. In PG speak-ese, it’s privacy, privacy and privacy. They don’t want their kids to know, they don’t want you to ask for more money, they want to be able to change it if need be, this list can go on indefinitely.


Statistics tell us those thanked effectively may double or triple their gift. Several years ago, an NCPG study showed that half of all donors did not feel thanked. Maybe they needed more, I thought.

While I was at Childreach, I used the ‘three prong thank’ so the donors would not miss it.

We had a board member or the president call to say thanks

We went to their home or had them come to our office for a thank you presentation that included a Bequest Society membership certificate (if your budget is tight, Staples or any office supply store sells the blank certificates for a few dollars)

We (of course, asking their permission first) published their name in the annual report and made sure they got a copy with their bequest highlighted. We never lost a donor and, I think, got some good brownie points along the way. Being nice really does have its own reward.

Then, Keep Cultivating!! As a matter of fact, this can pay off very nicely. Just one quick story:

When I got to Childreach, I called all the major donors to introduce myself and get to know them a bit. Childreach used to be Foster Parents Plan in the US and works to help children and their families in 28 countries. Most donors were thrilled with this first call. For those who did not like it, I made a point to record their reaction and honor their request for no calls. That was less than 2% of all the donors I called.

One donor, who I will call Harold (not his real name) was delighted to be called and spent a happy hour and a half telling me how he had been a donor for over 30 years and had never before been called. Harold was in his 80s, his wife was dead and he lived in a nursing home. His career had been as a carnival owner, obviously working with kids his whole life. He ‘sponsored’ 20 kids a year, most recently in Zimbabwe, where there was a bad drought. He had been sponsoring kids for decades, writing them letters and enjoying the letters, pictures and other contact with them. Harold told me he had left Childreach a sizable sum ($320,000) in his will so ‘his kids’ would be taken care of after he died. I, of course, made sure he got the ‘three prong thank’.

A short while later, I called all the major donors again to ask them what date was their birthday. I said, “Since you make the times in the lives of the children you sponsor possible by your gifts, we would like to celebrate the times in your life with you. Will you please tell me your birthday so I can send a birthday card?”

Well, as you might imagine, Harold was thrilled, talked a blue streak and it turned out his birthday was only 2 weeks away. When he got his birthday card, he called me first and told me how touched he was and that my birthday card was the only one he had gotten. He then called my boss and the Chair of the Board to tell them how pleased he was to be remembered. That was in December.

A few weeks later in early January, I got a call from Harold’s Trust Officer, telling me that Harold had died quietly in his sleep. She told me he had changed his bequest before he died and we would now get twice as much, $640,000. I told her how much his generosity had meant to ‘His kids’ and that they and I would miss him. He was a great old guy.

I gulped, gathered myself, and told her that most of his kids were in Zimbabwe and there was a bad drought and we could really use the money for drilling wells. Could we have it ASAP, since it would mean lives saved? Two weeks later, I walked into my boss’ office and handed him a check for $640,000. He quite literally fell out of his chair and it took 4 stitches to close the wound. On the good side, he was ecstatic all the way to the hospital. Those head wounds bleed like crazy and I still have a small stain on my passenger seat as a reminder.

When I was at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, I did a study of 15 years of bequest collection records. I was in charge of a one million piece direct mailing program as well as an internal staff of six. We supported fifteen Planned Giving Representatives all over the Unite States and collected about $16 million a year at that time.

We found that the donors who received a letter directly asking them for a bequest were 17x more likely to give a bequest than the donors who were not asked.

We found out that those who were asked and THANKED gave 2x as much as those who were not thanked.

Those who were cultivated (notes, letters, visits, etc) after that thank you gave 3-4x as much.

So, all those calls, letters and visits really do pay off. Can you do this type of study with the records your nonprofit keeps now? It can really change your work significantly and give you valuable tools to show how valuable what you do really is to your nonprofit and to ask for more staff and raises. If you don’t have these records now, start today to keep track.

However, there are still huge numbers of donors who will not tell you they have named your nonprofit in their will. My study also showed that less than one donor in 14 told us that they had named us as a beneficiary in their estate plan.