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Tales from the Crypt: Dead People Are Better Donors Than Corporations

Today’s title might suggest morbidity, but actually it’s a tale of profitability. It’s a story about what happens to a donor’s money that isn’t spent during their lifetime.

Let me start at the beginning.

Dead People Give More Than Corporations

I get a lot of email from nonprofit consultants and professionals. My colleague, Carol Weisman, sent out an email with the subject line: “Dead people give more than corporations.” That certainly caught my attention.

Carol’s alarming headline simply stated the well-known statistic produced by Giving USA every year. It’s the finding that corporations give roughly 6 percent of the charitable dollars annually, and 11 percent are given via bequest. In other words, dead people give roughly twice as much as corporations do.

That leads to the obvious question:

Are you spending twice as much time soliciting people for bequests as you are soliciting corporations?

Probably not.

Accepting Bequests Is Smart and It’s Easy

Here’s the thing ... most development directors don’t solicit bequests because they think it’s hard, or they don’t know how. These are not acceptable excuses.

Sadly some are worried they won’t get “credit” for the gift, because it probably won’t come until long after they’re gone. Honestly, while we’re speaking of legacies, what will be your fundraising legacy if you don’t think beyond your own time at an organization?

Since you’re on your way to becoming a major gift expert, it’s important to include planned giving, and more specifically, bequests in your fundraising arsenal.

The process is easy—you don’t need any special skills or expertise to accept bequests. All you need is some lawyer-approved language (two to three lines at most) for donors to include in their wills. You can find samples on most nonprofit organization’s websites and borrow from them. Have your lawyer check it out just to get final approval. (Remember ... I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one on TV.)

Bequests are the vast majority of planned gifts given, so that’s your motivation. It also arms with you with everything you need to support getting started.

Money and Death are RealitiesAcknowledge Them

Yes, money and death are deemed taboo, or difficult subjects in our culture. But the fact is everyone knows they’re realities. It’s the white elephant in the fundraising room, so broach the subject since it’s a natural part of life.

Yes, it’s also natural to feel intimidated, but soliciting bequests is a vital and obvious step to take in your life as a fundraiser.

Simply ask donors how they wish to be remembered

Start by asking your donors how they wish to be remembered. In other words, ask what type of legacy they would like to leave. Find out if your donors have or ever have considered leaving a bequest in their will.

Let them know that many people leave gifts in their wills ... larger than the gifts they make during their lifetimes ... after all, they can’t take their money with them.

Of course, family comes first, but if an organization has been important to someone during their lifetime, it is appropriate to leave a legacy to that organization as well.

I often use a pie chart to support this conversation. I use it to illustrate that often 80-90 percent goes to family with the remainder going to support important causes.

Bequests: An Untapped Source of Funds

Bequests are an untapped source of funding. Research shows that most Americans could leave a bequest, but haven’t considered doing so, until asked ... so ask!

It’s important to partner with professionals, including attorneys and financial planners, for the occasions when you need technical help. Donors should use their own professional advisors. As an organization, you never want to provide legal or financial advice.

Keep in mind, planned gifts often take many years to come to fruition. If someone in your position had been soliciting bequests 20 years ago, you would be reaping the rewards of their work now. That’s why it’s important to start thinking about this today.

In fact, you can begin building your legacy today by checking out Mastering Major Gifts, my 7 week, online course. In this course, you’ll learn how to fine-tune your bequest solicitations and help secure a stable and reliable source of funds for your organization’s future.

Have you started soliciting bequests? Why or why not? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Tales from the Crypt: Dead People Are Better Donors Than CorporationsThe preceding is a cross-post by author, speaker, and trainer Amy Eisenstein. Amy’s published books include Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops, Raising More with Less, and 50 A$ks in 50 Weeks. She became an AFP certified Master Trainer in 2009. Amy recently completed her service as the president of the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals—New Jersey Chapter. She became a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) in 2004 and received her advanced certification, ACFRE, in 2013. Check out her blog and video posts at for free fundraising tips and best practices.

Topics: Fundraising Bequests Planned Giving