To Ask or Not…That is the million dollar planned giving question!

General fundraisers can all agree to one principle of fundraising: an “ask” for money has to be made (whether it’s an in-person meeting, a direct mail solicitation, dinner invite, telemarketer, etc….).

But, for planned giving?  Is it about the “ask”?  Do we even make an “ask”?

Personally, from my days as a planned giving fundraiser (whether at a national civil rights org. or at a hospital), I rarely had to ask for a “planned gift.”  More often than not, my job was to introduce ideas, guide the process, push (in a professional manner, of course) to see a planned gift idea to completion.  And, most larger planned giving programs can attest that most of their bequest donors, in particular, were never directly asked to include the organization in their estates. And, for the complex gifts, quite often the conversations are started by the donors and the fundraiser just needs to manage the process towards a complete gift.  Not many real “asks”.

Great, that works well for an organization reaching out to hundreds of thousands of donors, prospects and the public in general.  It is more of a marketing question in a lot of those cases.

What about smaller organizations?  Schools, social service agencies, temples/churches, etc…  The potential audience is limited and unsolicited planned gifts don’t happen very often, if ever.  What do you do?

At a recent training event, I was challenged (while on stage, no less) that the previous guest speaker had communicated that planned giving didn’t involve an “ask” – rather it was about putting ideas in front of the right people, picking up the signs of interest, building the relationship, and so on.  Soft marketing.  All true.

It dawned on me though, and this is what we do with many clients, that for smaller shops its seems as though leadership and very likely prospects need to be “asked” to “consider” a legacy gift at some point in the relationship.  Maybe not at a first meeting on the subject.  And, certainly not the same as a standard fundraising ask which should include a specific dollar amount. But, it is at least a “call to action,” albeit one that should be softly courted as the changing of one’s estate plans is a sensitive and personal decision.

As far as I am concerned, this idea applies also to the leadership at the larger organizations.  I have had numerous conversations with planned giving fundraisers and the consensus is that most work primarily with non-leadership donors.  Leadership remains in the realm of the lead fundraisers, not the planned giving officers.  Will a planned giving conversation happen with a leader?  Not always and only after their passing does the lament set in that no bequest or other planned gift was in place.

I once marveled when comparing a recent bequest of over $1 million from a barely known legacy society donor to that of a long time board member who had recently passed (and the bosses asked me to somehow find out if we were in his estate plans – it was public knowledge that he had hundreds of millions in assets at his passing).  That board member’s average giving was around $25,000 a year for 25 years – over $600,000 in lifetime giving.  Very significant but no bequest.  That little old lady, who got about 1,000 times less attention, had a greater lifetime giving amount than the wealthy board member!

Two lessons.  Keep investing in planned giving promotion because there will be a payoff.  The off-the-radar legacy society member can easily outproduce many of your leaders at the end of the day.  And, “ask” those leaders if they will at least “consider” an estate plan gift.  It can’t be so soft that the leader never realizes that he or she is being asked to do something in their estate  plans.




  1. I agree: rather than a bald ask, I try to establish a dialogue and then a relationship with prospects, one that ideally leads to a commitment and then stewardship.

    And cannot agree more about the incredible generosity of “small” donors in our file whose bequests often far exceed the total giving of the “major” donors we spend so much time and energy on (though of course the giving and influence of the latter group is a critical part of our overall fundraising success). At NYPL, not a month goes by without a six figure bequest from a donor whose total lifetime giving was in three figures–these gifts really inspire me and underline the importance of treating everyone with respect and care no matter how modest their capacity appears.

    1. John
      Did you survey those donors to find out if there were any common denominators among them to support their giving? Had they indicated that NYPL was left in their estate plans? Did you cultivate an active on-going relationship with these donors?

  2. Passive marketing certainly has a role in planned giving. And, many times a planned gift will naturally evolve from conversations with a prospect without the need for an actual ask. On the other hand, an ask is often both appropriate and necessary for securing a planned gift.

    One of my all-time favorite quotes about planned giving comes from Philip J. Murphy, at Zimmerman Lehman: “Get wild with planned giving: Think of it as fundraising!”

    What Phil is suggesting is that nonprofit organizations should treat planned giving as they would any other development activity. That means, you often need to ask if you want to receive planned gifts.

    Among Americans age 30 and above, only 22 percent say they have been approached by a nonprofit to consider a planned gift, according to a Stelter survey. Perhaps that’s why only 5.3 percent of Americans over 50 have included a charitable bequest provision in their will (James) while 33 percent of Americans surveyed by the Center on Philanthropy say they are willing to consider a bequest commitment if asked. In other words, there’s a lot of untapped potential out there for the nonprofit sector.

    What I find particularly interesting is that 88.7 percent of donors to nonprofit organizations ‘‘indicated they believe it is appropriate for nonprofits to ask for legacy gifts,’’ according to a study by Sargeant and Jay.

    So, if the nonprofit sector is not coming anywhere close to realizing its planned gift potential and if prospects say it’s ok to ask for planned gifts, why aren’t more development professionals doing more asking?

    Passive marketing is fine. Soft-asking is often appropriate. But, those two approaches alone will not maximize planned gift results. Asking for a planned gift in person, by mail, and even by phone is necessary if the nonprofit sector is going to close the gap between what donors are doing and what the potential is.

    You can read more about the studies I referenced above in my book, “Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing” (

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