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August 20, 2014
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September 3, 2014

How We Think About Bequest Giving

brain-scan_530I just got back from a fantastic presentation by Russell James, J.D., Ph.D., at the Colorado Planned Giving Roundtable on bequest giving.

Dr. James has done amazing research, using MRI scans of the brain, experimental psychology, and surveys to see what motivates bequest gifts. He has a book all about it called “Inside the Mind of the Bequest Donor” that goes through all his impressive research.

This presentation really focused on what we as fundraising professionals can do to more effectively communicate with planned giving prospects. To what messages do these prospects best respond?

Here’s some great stuff I got out of Dr. James’ work:

Bequest donor stories really DO work

While many of us have long thought that testimonial stories work best to engage planned giving donor prospects, Dr. James actually proved it through his work. In one experiment, he asked people to consider different messages after the idea of a bequest gift was introduced and overwhelmingly, a prospect said they were more likely to leave a bequest in their will when they are told a story about someone who did it before.

People want to see themselves in a message about bequest giving, and hearing or reading a story about someone can inspire them to put themselves in that context. They want to feel like it’s a normal, good thing to do. And those stories tap into all of our desire to create a life narrative or story about ourselves.

Here’s this concept in action: In the audience tonight, a fundraiser from the Ocean Conservancy thanked Dr. James for all his good work and said that based on his research, the Ocean Conservancy had had it’s most successful planned giving mailing in 13 years.

The organization had asked people to write their own stories about why the ocean is important to them and send it back to them along with a reply device expressing their interest in bequest giving. The staff at the Ocean Conservancy followed up and got a great response.

This strategy tapped into that “life narrative” that we all want to create. How can your nonprofit do that?

Older donors are making the decisions

For several years, I’ve been hearing that bequest giving can apply to any age. But research shows that older donors really are the best audience for planned giving work.

While people may create a will when they are younger, key decisions are made on charitable giving later in life. Over 80% of charitable bequests dollars come from people who are 80 and 76% of gifts come from people who were 80 when they signed their wills. Most realized charitable plans were added within 5 years of death.

Bottom line? You have to find a way to communicate with the older audience because it’s the decision making point.

Friends and family are a big part of the picture

Dr. James’ brain research showed that when people are thinking about bequests to friends and family they engage emotion and memory more than they do when they consider charitable bequests.

So what if you remind people about life stories that connect charitable causes with friends and family members? This had a dramatic affect on people’s willingness to leave a bequest in studies.

Why would your grandmother have been appreciative of a bequest to a certain organization?

How can we operationalize this? Consider including this on your reply device: “Check here for more information on how to honor a friend or family by making a gift to charity in your last will and testament.”

Messaging for bequests is more oblique than direct

None of us likes to think about death. We have all kinds of tactics to avoid thinking about our estate plans.

Dr. James’ research suggests that “mixed” packaging” of planned giving messages appeal to a wider audience because it comes at us indirectly with other messages about the organization.

So instead of a newsletter with just planned giving, a story about planned giving is just a part of the overall content. Instead of coming right to planned giving in a personal visit, there are stories about other happenings at the organization and then a story about a planned giving donor. Dr. James calls this the “oblique conversation”.

Here’s an example: one organization called together a focus group of donors to discuss why their planned giving seminars for donors weren’t being attended. The focus group ended up talking about the content of the planned giving seminars, but through the lens of the focus group – not a direct ask – and they had more interest in planned giving from the focus group than they had ever had from the seminars!

It’s about the long term

Dr. James’ research suggests that decisions about current giving are not made in the same context as bequest decisions. Current giving is about the immediacy, the here and now. But bequest giving is about creating the lasting improvements that would benefit people in the future.

In order to move a bequest prospect, you have to emphasize the long-term impact of the gift.

While this might sound more than a bit obvious, do you have language in your fundraising that actually does this?


Take a look at Dr. James research. (Here’s a link to a Market Smart infographic of his research). It’s truly fascinating and incredibly helpful for those thinking about messaging bequests and other types of planned giving.

And if you get the chance, find the planned giving council in your community by following this link. There are so many resources available. Don’t miss out!


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