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Starting a Bequest Program Is Easier Than You Think: Interview with David Valinsky

David Valinsky, co-author of Raising Money Through Bequests, recently spoke with his publisher about the art and mystery of charitable bequests. GuideStar has published an excerpt from the book, and we're pleased to be able to share Mr. Valinsky's additional thoughts with you.

How big a pie are we talking about? In other words, how much total revenue do charitable organizations earn annually from bequest giving?

Annual U.S. philanthropy rose for the third consecutive year in 2012 to $316.23 billion. Not bad for a country still balancing the effects of a severe economic downturn. Seven percent of that figure—or $22 billion—represented bequests. This percentage has stayed fairly consistent for the last five years.

An individual must obviously have a will before he or she can leave a bequest. How many of us have wills?

It's in the 30 to 40 percent range. It would be higher except for three reasons:

  • People feel their estates are too small.
  • People don't want to pay attorney fees.
  • People intend to leave their estate to their spouses or children and don't feel they need a will.

Even individuals who do have wills don't review or update them regularly. It's always a good idea, when a big life event like a marriage or death in the family occurs, to take a second look.

And the biggest consequence of not having a will?

If you don't have a will you leave the distribution of your estate, whether it's large or small, up to the state and its laws and statutes. You can't specify any special conditions or distributions unless you spell them out in a will.

The opening chapter to Raising Money Through Bequests is titled "It's Easier Than You Think." Really? What about attorneys, financial advisors, legal mumbo jumbo—that doesn't sound like a cakewalk.

The good news is that 90 percent or more of your donors' estate gifts will come in the simplest of forms: a bequest. They're the easiest type of planned gift to understand, and the least expensive to promote.

Take a bequest society, for example. It's a marketing tool that allows you to recognize and thank donors—while they're still alive—who've indicated their intentions to include your organization in their wills. To get started, you only need three components:

  1. a governing board that understands the importance of and is committed to the program;
  2. a brief case for support; and
  3. gift acceptance policies, which cover a variety of giving options including bequests.

For those wanting to start a bequest program, describe some of the stumbling blocks they're likely to face.

As easy as it is to start a bequest program, you may run into some barriers.

  • Not having the full support of your organization's board
  • Concern from leadership about fundraising efforts that focus on future support rather than on immediate gifts
  • The misconception that the cost for establishing a bequest program is high

In our book we describe how to overcome these challenges.

Describe the most likely audience for bequest giving. Who should we approach first?

Bequest giving isn't always about donors' financial capacity. Often it's more about their interest in your organization. Your best audience? Those who are already giving from income, especially those who have given to you for many years running, even if the gifts are small.

And don't obsess about age. Although older friends of your organization (70-plus) are good candidates, we're seeing donors in the 40 to 50 age range make bequests. They know they can change their minds later, which gives them peace of mind.

Specifically, we suggest you focus on two groups:

Group One

  • Board members (current and emeritus)
  • Longtime annual supporters
  • Congregants (if applicable)
  • Those with no close surviving family members
  • Major gift donors
  • Direct mail donors

Group Two

  • Everyone else connected to the organization
  • Event attendees
  • Volunteers
  • Grateful friends who have benefited from your organization's services (patients, subscribers, members)

When many people think of bequest giving, names of big gifts going to Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art come to mind. Is it realistic to think a small organization can attract bequests?

Once again it's not always about financial capacity or current income. For example, we've often seen donors who have included a bequest of their home, old stock certificates, real estate, or a paid-up life insurance policy. These gifts can be as high as seven figures. Sure, financial capacity can be important, but what's key is the relationship the person has with your organization.

A question about motivation. What are some of the leading reasons people give bequests.

As is true for any charitable giving, donors make bequests to organizations they're passionate about. They're motivated by:

  • their belief in your mission and work;
  • the opportunity to give a much larger gift than they could do with current income;
  • an interest in establishing their own family's legacy in support of a favorite organization; and
  • the very human desire to give back and help.

Somehow the words Internet and bequests don't seem to go together. Am I right?

You share a common misconception with many. The Internet actually provides a wonderful forum for sharing stories and testimonies from bequest society donors. Including these stories on your Web site can inspire other potential donors.

Any prevailing myths about bequest giving you'd like to dispel?

  1. Bequests negatively impact the organization's annual giving activities.
  2. Donors must be older (70-plus).
  3. The program is too costly.
  4. Don't have enough "wealthy" members/friends in your organization.

Last thing: the biggest mistake organizations make with respect to seeking bequests is ...?

... not reaching out and securing bequest intentions from the organization's board of directors and former leaders.

David Valinsky, David Valinsky Associates
© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers

David Valinsky is the co-author of Raising Money Through Bequests and president of David Valinsky Associates (DVA). He and his team work with hospitals, social service agencies, religious groups, legal foundations, and arts organizations on capital and endowments campaigns, planned giving, and strategic development planning. Before forming DVA in 1998, he enjoyed a varied career in the nonprofit world, spanning more than 25 years in executive positions with Jewish Community Centers, hospitals, and health systems.

Topics: Fundraising