Friday, January 28, 2011

Legacy Giving: The greatest privilege a fundraiser will have

When my mother in law was dying I asked my friend, who is a minister, what I could do? I felt so helpless. Kirsty told me that when people are near death they really just want to talk and need someone to listen.

My mother in law took her last breath in a room that was full of laughter. She was finally at peace. I now know that death, while sad, can be as natural and as beautiful as a loud and painful childbirth. The circle of life.

What does this deeply personal experience have to do with fundraising? A lot...

This past week a man came into our office for an appointment he booked before Christmas. We had talked in December about his will and the potential of including our charity as one of his top three beneficiaries.

Dear Reader, you don't need to know anymore about that visit with 'Mr. Jone's' other than to know that I am speaking from experience and not theory. I was deeply honoured to be a part of such important decisions.

I`ve told you before that I am a generalist fundraiser and by no means consider myself an expert in any given area. But, there are some things I have learned working with Legators (people who have said they want include your charity in their Will) that I want to share with you:

Make the time

Nothing you have to do that day is more imporant than talking to someone about their final wishes in life. Nothing. A meeting that is scheduled for an hour may turn into three. Gently move it forward to make sure the business objectives are accomplished and be available to listen to your donor talk about their life, their dreams, their regrets and their final wishes. Legacy gifts are not about you or your charity. Legacy gifts are 100% donor centred. Always. Make the time.

Be sure you can keep your promise

A donor might suggest something very specific like a place they visited or a play they saw. Try to understand their motivations by asking open ended questions like:

'It sounds like you love visiting the XYZ exhibit in the museum. Can you tell me more about that?'

Actively listen and turn off the `yes but...` thoughts swimming around in your head. Be truly curious. Once you understand the true motivations of the suggestion you will be in a much better position to meet their desire to be affiliated with a certain feeling or place or program. You can then offer a less restrictive solution.

For example. Perhaps you work for a theatre company and your donor fell in love with a cutting edge contemporary new play. What the donor might say is `I love the David Mamet plays your company produces and I want to leave a legacy toward that.` Through active listening we can get to the underlying motivation. It isn`t realistic for a bequest to be directed toward producing David Mamet plays every year - in perpetuity. Perhaps the legacy your donor is striving for is an endowment to ensure that your theatre company always has the funding to try new, leading edge and risky productions.

You can get to this place through actively listening to your donor.

Be truly honest

If you don`t think that your charity is the right one or that perhaps they have your charity mixed up with another one make sure you clarify immediately. This can often happen in environmental charities. I have had a few donors talk to me and use the name of another charity and it is always a little bit risky to make sure they called the right place. No one wants a bequest that was intended for someone else.

Be respectful

This may seem like I`m pointing out the obvious but I`m doing it anyway. Your Legator is very likely much closer and more experienced with the cause than you are. Organizing their affairs may be slightly overwhelming due to frequent conversations with financial advisors, lawyers and balancing family needs and obligations. With some people, their thoughts may wander or their bodies may be frail. Respect their experience and wisdom. I believe our job is to help the process of finalizing an estate to be as simple as possible.

Through empathy and understanding of their love for our cause, we can offer peace of mind that no financial advisor or lawyer can.

Know your job

Remind your donor several times that you recommend they discuss their plans with their financial advisor and their family. Then explain why. It is very important that everyone understands that your charity is in the will because the donor wanted it there. Not because you did something to entice, manipulate or coerce. Harsh words I know. You might try saying something like this.

`Mrs. Norman, It really has been a pleasure talking to you about your estate plans. We at xyz charity are very grateful for your decision to include us in your Will. Please remember to discuss your plans with your financial advisor (or executor or lawyer)and if you are comfortable doing so, with your family. If we are all aware of your desires it will be easier to ensure that your wishes are granted.`

Discuss recognition

Wills are pretty dry reading. It can be very helpful to a charity to have details of how the Legator would like to be acknowledged, even including the wording they would like placed on a bench or a plaque. Having these details in the Will can ensure that in ten years, when the donor is gone and you have moved on, your charity doesn`t have to guess what was promised. Your charity will be legally bound to carry out the donor`s wishes if it is written in the Will. Just make sure that you negotiate something realistic and easy for your charity to implement.

In Summary

Nothing in the past ten years of fundraising has been as rewarding as my experience working on the Planned Giving program. I know that I am better able to do this work for having had first hand experience with the final stages of life. If you haven`t had the experience of taking the final steps of life with someone then I would suggest reading Tuesday`s with Morrie by Mitch Albom. This book is an amazing thesis not just on how to die but mostly how to live. And isn`t that really what legacy fundraising is all about - helping people live with peace, knowing that they have helped make a difference in the world, long after their lives will be over.

If you aren`t going to rush out and read Tuesdays with Morrie and if you still have a little time after reading such a longwinded blog this is a lovely piece on Morrie Schwartz with Ted Koppel.

Have you had an incredibly inspiring experience talking to a donor about their legacy? Please share your stories with us below.

Thank you for spending SO MUCH time here,


  1. Great post with an important message. Thanks for sharing Kimberley!

  2. Kimberley, you've put together a terrific, donor-centric post. As the author of "Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing," I applaud you for promoting this approach to gift planning. We can all best serve the organizations we represent when we focus on the donor, his/her needs, and his/her philanthropic aspirations. Being donor-centered may seem to be nothing but common sense, but it is unfortunately far from common practice. I also appreciate your insistence that the gift planning conversation is the most important a development professional can have. I look forward to reading more of your posts, and invite you to follow me at

  3. Kimberley - hi! We met in legacy masterclass at IOF 2009 - its so good to hear how you are including legacy work within your planned giving activity. Your post is really timely for me: I am talking now with our major donor team to try to ensure they build legacy issues into the DNA of their contact with donors. Your experience will be helpful in showing them how it has worked for you.
    May I ask - do you proactively introduce the topic at (what you believe / hope is) the right time? Or are you only responsive to a question from the donor?
    I hope you are well and that our paths will cross again!
    Colin Kemp, UK

  4. Great stuff Kimberley. Time with legacy donors is precious.

    And the good news is that with the boomers coming - who will surely seek legacy opportunities - these magical moments will happen more often.

  5. Thank you all for commenting. That is the real joy of blogging. Writing something that inspires people to have a conversation.

    Colin, I think we were at IFC together in Richard Radcliffe's legacy masterclass.

    What you have asked for above is another blog post actually. One I would be thrilled to write. Together with David Love, Jen Love and John Lepp we have been working for about a year to create more opportunities to talk about legacies with donors. Now those conversations are happening at least once if not several times per week. I'll post a Legacy part two blog to share a little more. Watch this space...

    Cheers from snowy Canada.

  6. Great stuff Kimberley ....try 5 secrets you must discover before you die as well....

  7. Yes Kimberley - the IFC, of course, with the inimitable Richard!

    I'd love to hear more about your work with David, Jen & John when you are ready and able to share. We do have a will to sort this at the development charity where I work - I'll keep you posted on progress. In the meantime, I think building the major donor team confidence around the issue will be the first challenge.
    Kind regards, Colin

  8. Okay Colin. I just blogged about my experience creating opportunities for conversations about legacies with donors. Your thoughts and comments are of course welcome.

  9. Do you still hear from here after the meeting? I totally agree with you on everything you have shared here, Kim. One thing that I learned from article that I read is that, fundraisers should help donors express their values, developing a sense of abundance by learning they have enough to share. Though it is not about the money, it should be understood that development is gained through building relationships with prospective donors and other organizations. There should be good accounting. Nonprofit unions are actually connecting people to something larger than them. I do hope he talk it through his family by now.