Amazing Planned Giving Statistic: IRS Data Shows Charitable Bequest Donors Triple Their Giving At Death

Thank you to David Joulfaian, an economist/researcher at the U.S. Dept. of Treasury, for unearthing the following statistic:

On average (based on IRS data from 1986 through 1997), charitable bequests during those years exceeded donors’ total lifetime charitable giving by 2.74 times. In other words, IRA data showed that the charitable bequests of estate tax paying donors/decedents on average were triple their during-life giving to charities.

A few caveats on the data – the analysis looked at estates that were required to file estate tax returns and their giving histories (as recorded by the IRS – all presumably itemizers).  This means that not included in the numbers would be smaller estates.  My guess is that the lower value gross estates might have higher rates of estate giving exceeding their lifetime giving.

This is not news to planned giving folks.  I have always found it amazing how a simple bequest donor (someone who gave small amounts over life) might easily leave a bequest of hundreds of thousands of dollars and could exceed the total lifetime giving of the most VIP major gift donors – and by a lot!  One person is on the radar, gets lots of attention and the other is off the radar, gets virtually no attention.  Pretty ironic, if you ask me.  In the end, the few dollars spent on promoting planned giving to the masses can sometimes go a lot further than all of the staff time and angst spent on the “high end” donors.

Take a look at this U.S. Treasury research paper if you want to see the details:  U.S. Treasury Bequest and Giving Analysis


  1. As you note, this is not a big surprise to PG folks at established charities. I have the regular pleasure of informing my bosses of six and even seven figure gifts from donors whose total lifetime giving in some cases did not even reach four figures. I agree that modest but sustained investment to reach out to and to steward these folks pays off handsomely over time. (The multiple we usually see is much higher, often twenty or even several hundred times more than the lifetime giving; the twenty times figure is the one I like, since it in effect will endow ongoing support at the level of their total lifetime giving if endowment draw is 5%, as ours is currently.)

  2. Thank you John for commenting, as always! The interesting point about the data was that it really focused on the higher net wealth crowd (estate tax return filers) and still came away with a large amount over their during life giving. It shows us how important it is to generally encourage including our charities in the estates of even the largest donors.

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