To Ask or Not? (for documentation)…

donr-is-kingOne of the most basic questions for any fledgling planned giving program is whether you should ask legacy donors for documentation of their commitments.  Not so simple.

Most of these commitments are revocable bequests in wills or account beneficiary designations.  Why do we (the nonprofits) want the documentation especially if they doesn’t bind our supporters to follow through with their commitments?  Easy – we want to make sure the commitment is more than just a promise to act, that our donor has acted already!  That’s part of our job in planned giving – to do as much as we can to see gifts to fruition, which includes documentation and stewardship.

Sounds easy enough. But, I just sat today with a “model” planned giving donor – someone who has shared his legacy plans with several nonprofits – and he gave me more reservations on this question.  In a moment of total honesty, he said it “irked” him that some of the charities he was leaving significant gifts to aggressively asked for copies of the relevant portions of the instrument he used for the gift. From his perspective, the charities should take his word for it.

And, you know what, I agree with him!  My approach on this issue has always been to get the commitment to the idea upfront verbally or in a non-binding letter of intent and see if you can get documentation in later years (not demand but see if the donor is ok with the request).  People’s estate plans are private matters and the fact that someone is willing to share that a bequest is coming to your charity is plenty. Don’t push your luck.

If  you ask for documentation, make it optional – “just for our files” – and leave it at that if your supporter demurs.

And guess what – those charities are still waiting for documentation from this donor. The offending charities are lucky they weren’t dropped!




  1. I agree with this take on the issue. Not asking is one of first steps of building a trusting relationship that will hopefully bear results in the future.

  2. I say I am asking for documentation, even if it’s just a letter of intent, as a requirement for membership in our legacy society. Some donors want to remain anonymous so membership means nothing to them. Others are very cooperative and give us a copy of the respective page in their will. Then there are those who won’t sign even a letter of intent.

  3. I don’t ask the donor for a copy of their documents (but do accept it when offered). We send the donor a letter thanking them for their commitment, and a form to share other info with us. The focus is on making sure we recognize them appropriately (How do you want to be listed in the annual report? Do we need to keep you anonymous?), and giving them an opportunity to tell us if their gift should be applied to a specific program. There are also places to share things like birthdate, gift instrument, and expected amount or % of estate, and most donors do this even though it’s optional.

    But emphasizing the 2 pieces that are greatest importance to the donor (recognition and clarifying use of gift) is how we get a great response with no negative feedback.

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