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Building a bequest program: 4 simple steps to get started

September 29, 2020
A nonprofit staff member talks to an elderly woman about the organization's bequest programs.

Planned giving can be a nonprofit organization’s most powerful revenue source. Along with major gifts, these donations make up the largest individual contributions made to nonprofit organizations, providing financial sustainability for the future. Plus, they allow donors to leave a lasting legacy by arranging to support your nonprofit’s purpose beyond their lifetime.

Establishing a bequest program helps your nonprofit organization make the most of planned gifts. Bequests, which are contributions arranged through a supporter’s will or living trust, are the most common planned giving vehicle and the easiest for donors to understand. While other types of planned gifts are also valuable, starting with a bequest program allows your organization to begin cultivating legacy donors and explore other gift opportunities as your program expands. 

In this guide, we’ll walk through four simple steps to start a bequest program that streamlines your efforts as you actively pursue these critical funding opportunities.

1. Establish a bequest system

For your bequest program to be successful, you first need to have the right system in place. Ensure your nonprofit has financial policies in place that ensure compliance and dictate the types of gifts you can receive. These policies include:

  • Gift acceptance policy outlines the types of gifts your nonprofit organization can and can’t accept from donors. For example, some nonprofit organizations refuse to accept the donation of livestock in accordance with this type of policy.
  • Conflict of interest policy ensures that your organization remains compliant and that no staff or board members receive direct financial benefits from the organization’s decisions. 
  • Investment policy concerns the donation of stocks and investments. To determine the best way to handle this (or to invest funds from other bequests you receive), you’ll need to have an investment policy. 

Because they have many moving pieces, bequest programs require a team effort. Start by appointing or hiring a planned gifts officer to lead your organization through the research, marketing, and relationship-building process. As your nonprofit organization grows, add to your planned giving team to divide responsibilities among staff members who have skills suited to each role.

2. Consult with your board

Your nonprofit’s board plays a key role in securing bequests. While their main duties are overseeing your hiring plans and approving your marketing budget, they also contribute to the success of your program in many ways. For example: 

  • Board members are often well-connected and may be able to introduce you to prospective legacy donors.
  • Members represent your nonprofit organization in the community, so they can spread the word about your bequest program by networking with prospective donors. 
  • Because of their long-term dedication to your organization, some board members could be inclined to arrange bequests themselves.

As you establish your bequest program, ask your nonprofit organization’s board members to approve your plans and solicit their valuable feedback on the program’s direction. Then, if any members show particular interest in legacy giving, contact them individually about making a planned gift or being a bequest program ambassador.

3. Conduct planned giving prospect research

While your board is often a good starting point for cultivating bequests, conducting prospect research maximizes the number of planned donors your organization can reach. 

Planned giving prospect research process is similar to major donor prospecting in that you use donor data and specialized research tools to find top candidates. However, identifying the best prospects for your bequest program requires you to examine slightly different data points, including the following:

  • Wealth markers.  Although net income can be an indicator, real estate holdings and investment holdings are especially important for planned giving prospect research. Not only can those assets increase in value over time, but your donors may also choose to donate those assets in the future.
  • Affinity markers. The more a donor engages with your nonprofit organization, the more likely they are to consider making a bequest. Look for recurring mid-level donors who also volunteer, attend fundraising events, or participate in advocacy activities at your organization.
  • Demographics. Older donors with a long history of involvement with your nonprofit organization tend to be the best candidates for bequests. They are the most likely to consider their will in earnest and to hear out your solicitations. 

Once you’ve identified planned giving prospects, group them according to their engagement level and specific interests. Effective donor segmentation will help you prioritize outreach to the best-planned giving candidates and craft personalized communications they’ll be receptive to.

4. Market your bequest program

After you’ve identified and segmented your planned giving prospects, begin reaching out to them to inform them about your program. Use these tips for marketing your bequest program effectively:

  • Brand it as a legacy giving programRather than emphasizing the program’s legal or commitment aspects with the terms “bequest program” or “planned giving program,” use the term “legacy giving program” to focus on the main benefit donors receive by joining.
  • Use a multi-channel marketing strategy. Promoting your bequest program on several platforms provides you with multiple touchpoints for engaging more prospects. Create a page on your nonprofit organization’s website dedicated to bequest information, add a planned giving section to your email newsletter, and send direct mail messages explaining the program in detail.
  • Personalize your outreach. Contact your top prospects individually using their preferred communication channel. Address them by name, reference their past involvement, and set up a meeting to discuss your program and continue building relationships with them.

Once donors have arranged planned gifts for your organization, ask them if they’re willing to provide short testimonials about why they chose to make bequests and what your nonprofit means to them. With their permission, incorporate these firsthand perspectives into your marketing materials to inspire more donors to join your bequest program.

Seeking out bequests is an ongoing process, but having an established program will help your organization make the most of these critical funding opportunities. Add staff members to your planned giving team, evaluate your prospect research process, and track conversion rates from your marketing materials to improve your promotional strategy over time.

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