Planned Giving Prospects: Long-term Smaller End Donors or Larger Major Gift Donors?

This is a classic planned giving quandary.  Who are better planned giving prospects: your long-term smaller end donors or your larger major gift donors?

I have no real answer, of course, because it depends on the organization and involves different approaches.

But, I stumbled upon a very telling news piece (from the Lewiston Daily) from 1943 regarding  John Pierpoint Morgan’s will (J. P. Morgan himself).  The headline: “Morgan Made One Charitable Bequest.”

What was the angle of the story?  J. P. Morgan, probably one of the most famous wealthy individuals of his time and certainly a major philanthropist, left only $150,000 to his church as the extent of his charitable bequests.  In today’s world, that is equivalent to a multi-billionaire leaving billions to his family and a few million to one charity.

What is most telling from the story is this explanation that came right out of J.P. Morgan’s will for his decision not to include much charitable bequest monies in  his will:

“As throughout my life I have been in the habit, to the extent of my ability, of making donations to various benevolent, religious and educational objects in which I have taken much interest, I make no further bequest for such purposes.”

In other words, he took care of many charitable causes during life – his estate was reserved primarily for family.

While organizations must promote planned giving options to their wealthiest and largest donors, it is very common to see the biggest and best not leave anything while the unknown, small end donors leave the big bequests.

I have often reflected on the irony that the little old lady who never appeared on an organization’s radar because she never gave more than $50 in a year, could surpass most or all of the major donors (who consumed untold amounts of staff time and energies) lifetime giving with a million dollar bequest (a typical occurrence in the planned giving world).

If you care to see the article, click this link:  JP Morgan Will Article.


  1. Thanks for this reminder Jonathan. With a little planning, most organizations don’t need to get into an “either / or” discussion about which of these two examples is best. There are so many supporter segments available regardless of giving level, or even whether or not a given supporter donates. There are two keys to success.

    1) Have legacy giving messages interspersed throughout all available communications channels.
    2) Ensure legacy asks are being made of longterm supporters with a heart connection by, a) staff at the officer level; b) volunteers who have made their own legacy commitment; and, c) even staff at the program level who have relationships with these longterm supporters.

    Legacy asks are greatly underutlized in our field, and sadly most often consigned only to those who have the outdated phrase “planned giving” in their titles. The simple question, “Would you consider including XYZ in your will or trust?” can be asked by the three groups above to great success. It will take a culture shift in most organizations to make this happen. In the long run, organizations will obtain many more qualfied leads and confirmed gifts through legacy asks than communications. Both are extremely valuable.

  2. Hi Jonathan, I’m always in awe of your reading list; how you “stumble upon” things.

    Great point though and I came across similar thinking thinking not too long ago with a board member for one of my clients. He’s a major, major giver but he told me when he’s gone, his estate only benefits his family.

    It’s ironic that some members of his family have already passed away and made nice bequests to my client. Go figure.

    I’m a believer that commitment beats capacity every time. Nonprofits need to be able to recognize commitment when it’s right in front of them.

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