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Planned giving marketing is outdated.

A significant part of my consulting work is helping nonprofits develop or refine their planned giving efforts, including how to message or market their program. One aspect of planned giving marketing I’m particularly honed in on is adding the impact discussion within marketing materials. Why? Because the traditional planned giving marketing is dare I say…outdated.

The most prevalent way to market planned giving programs is to lead with donor stories. The theory behind that this approach is that donors will see themselves within the stories and realize they too can make a planned gift. This approach is backed up with data.

Dr. Russell James, III has done extensive research that leading with death is harmful to planned giving marketing and he references mortality salience and avoidance as why this is. He also has done great work to inform our industry that leading with tax policies and legislative changes is not as effective as storytelling. He writes: “Both living and deceased bequest donor stories increased the relative likelihood of making a charitable bequest gift as compared with receiving no stories. These stories may be effective by providing examples that set a social norm encouraging such gifts” and “For the fundraiser, the most practical consequence of this study is that (a) sharing stories appears to increase bequest intentions and (b) concentrating on living donor stories appears more effective.”[1]

But we stopped there as an industry.


I find this odd since best practices around marketing our fundraising efforts are centered on highlighting impact. The data tells us our donors care about where the money is going, the impact it has, and how the organization uses its funds. Annual fundraising and major gift fundraising generally follow best practices and weave in statistics, narratives, and impact stories from the beneficiaries of the gifts. They do not rely almost exclusively on donor stories. So why does planned giving?

Ask yourself this, when is the last time you saw a story about the impact of a realized planned gift? Or the impact of collective realized planned gifts?

A mentor once told me that planned giving should be focused on telling every planned giving prospect that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things with their giving. That the $25,000 or $50,000 bequest will have impact just as the seven-figure bequest will. I took this to heart and it made me think, is the planned giving brochure in front of me telling the $25,000 planned giving prospect that they too can make a difference? I concluded it did not.

When the 2018 Burk Donor Survey Report came out, my concerns around traditional planned giving marketing was laid out in data. Here were some key takeaways from the bequest donor segment of the survey.

“Communicating with all donors is critical because the majority do not

disclose their bequests to not-for-profits that they have named in their wills.

Showcasing how annual fund contributions are accomplishing important

things in the short-term simultaneously boosts current fundraising efforts

while reassuring planned gift donors that they have chosen the right cause

for their legacy gift.”

“Among Respondents who have been recognized as planned gift donors,

having their names published in some form is the most common activity. But

this kind of “passive” recognition is not as effective at sustaining loyalty or

encouraging more generous giving than is “experiential” recognition.

Experiential recognition offers donors opportunities to learn more about

how not-for-profits are using donors’ gifts.”

“Images used to showcase planned giving may not be resonating with donors.

Not-for-profits should feature images unique to their organization and which

depict how planned gifts realize important and measurable results. Stock

photos should be avoided.”

“As we have consistently found in other research as well as in this survey,

endorsements by other donors are not especially persuasive. Donors see

themselves as unique individuals (which they are); they do not feel that

other donors whom they do not know personally either speak for them or

reflect their own life experience.”

Don’t get me wrong, donor stories are incredible ways to steward (or as I like to frame it, post-commitment cultivate) planned giving commitments. They should be used strategically, but hanging our hats on this being the only way to market planned giving is outdated.

I submit it’s time to change it up. Yes, we should still be featuring living and deceased donor’s stories, yes we should still be highlighting legislative and tax policy changes that affect our donors, but how about we add what planned gifts actually do for our organization and who is benefiting from them to our toolbox?

[1] Dr. Russell James, III and Claire Routley, We the Living: The effects of living and deceased stories on charitable bequest giving intentions. Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark. 21: pp 109-117 (2016).

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