4 min read

Six things you must do in order to start a successful planned giving program at your nonprofit.

Nonprofit fundraising professionals do not leave any stone unturned in their pursuit of additional revenue streams. Yet many nonprofits neglect planned giving, either by not having a program in the first place or by not giving it the time and attention that it warrants.

And planned giving definitely warrants time and attention.

I won’t go into detail as to why—my brilliant colleague has already done so here—but I will say that charitable giving is poised to increase significantly as a vast generational transfer of wealth is expected to take place in the coming decades. To give you one figure: philanthropic experts predict that total charitable giving could reach $72 trillion by the year 2061. (That’s trillion, with a “t.”) And with the baby boomers entering their prime retirement years, we’re primed for a planned giving bonanza (sorry, baby boomers).

Many fundraisers view planned giving programs as onerous, complex, and devoid of immediate benefits. But they don't have to be! Let’s walk through the six things you need to know for starting a planned giving program at your nonprofit organization.

1. Setting up a planned giving program is as easy as communicating to your donors that you accept planned gifts. It’s easy to get lost in all the options once you move beyond the cold hard cash that defines most fundraising efforts. It’s also easy to envision your organization being bled dry by lawyers, consultants, and others as you try to understand the planned giving landscape to set up a program.

But get the basics down first. Starting a planned giving program is as easy as telling your donors that they can put your organization in their wills. Build up the program over time, adding new benefits and accepting new types of gifts, but start simple. You can also accept your donor’s pledge first, and figure out how to process and receive it later.

2. You have to commit to your program over the long term. Even a well-constructed and well-maintained planned giving program may not bear fruit for months, or even a few years. But the long term benefits certainly justify your investment of time and resources. Some donors may not even be aware that they can give non-cash gifts to your organization, and a planned giving program offers increased flexibility that donors will appreciate.

3. Select a name for your legacy society that is unique to your organization, and offer benefits that you can easily fulfill. Over and above the increased flexibility that a legacy society provides donors, a successful program will offer donors both recognition and access. Donors, for the most part, appreciate—and sometimes expect—both public recognition and increased access for their gifts to your organization. Setting up a quarterly conference call with your president, creating legacy society lapel pins for members, and offering VIP privileges at large organizational events are just a few of the benefits that you can both promise and confidently deliver. These benefits, along with the name of your legacy society itself, should reflect your organization’s unique character, status, and work. An effective planned giving program makes membership personal to donors, bringing them further into the life of your organization.

4. Identify your best planned giving prospects. Your best prospects are going to be individuals who currently give to your organization. I hope that’s fairly obvious.

What’s less obvious is that your very best prospects are not those donors who give you the most; it’s the donors who give to you the most.

Of course, your best donors support you frequently and substantially. That’s why they’re your top donors. But research has shown that the most predictive indicator of future planned gifts is an individual’s longevity as your donor. So, as you cull through your donor list for planned giving prospects, don’t ignore the donor who has given you $100 each year for the last 15. They may maintain rather than increase their giving now, but a much larger bequest could come later.

5. Unveil your planned giving program to donors and prospects in a clear way and continue to incorporate it into your communications efforts—both solicitations and non-solicitations. A legacy society is not something that you want to surprise donors with. After you are confident that your program is ready to launch, prepare a special mailing or other campaign to announce your new society. Your program should have distinct branding, but not be wholly disconnected from your overall messaging or larger organization. A logo that is meaningfully distinct, but resembles your organizational logo and design scheme, is a good start. Then, make sure you continue to mention your planned giving program in communications. Creating a brochure or other collateral piece also helps.

6. Don’t avoid talking about planned giving with your donors, but be strategic in how you frame the discussion. Conversations about planned giving are colored by the massive implication that hangs in the air—that the donor will die someday. Of course, you—the fundraiser—will too, but chances are that you are much younger than your fellow traveler, and this discrepancy underscores the delicacy of the conversation. Be mindful of your donor’s fears and insecurities, but also of their hopes and dreams. We all want our legacy to extend beyond our own lives, and every discussion of planned giving should focus on these positives. You’re not trying to trick your donors into willing their money away to you, so listen to what they have to say. They’ve stood by you, so stand with them.

I hope that these six tips have addressed any reservations you may have had about planned giving and outlined how to do planned giving right. If your legacy society is the focal point of your organization’s development efforts, something is definitely wrong. But a robust planned giving program should prove a steady and fruitful aspect of your development program—one that is valued by your organization and your donors alike.


It’s my goal to help purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. Please let me know if and how I can be of help to you, feel free to shoot me an email at cskeel@americanphilanthropic.com, or check out our consulting services online at AmericanPhilanthropic.com and ongoing fundraising trainings throughout the year.


6 thoughts on “How to launch planned giving at your nonprofit”

  1. Marcus Coons says:

    I loved when you mentioned how you can get donations that are not cash for your nonprofit. It is important to understand what type of donations you need when planning your own nonprofit. A friend of mine was talking about starting a nonprofit to save sea turtles, so I wanted to look into it to help her out. https://legalforgood.com/nonprofit-formation/

  2. Scott Giebler says:

    Donors who inform us of a planned gift in advance and become members of a Legacy Society, should their pledge amount be listed with other Legacy Society Members by pledge amount levels on web-site, annual report, etc.

  3. Bob Hartsook says:

    By the way, research from Texas Tech is that an estate donor changes their estate within two weeks to a month before death. Hopefully much of it is just adjusting relationships of families. But also nonprofits that ignore their estate donors are frequently taken out. In some number of cases, financial planners are keeping the money with friends or family members of the deceased where they draw fees rather than allowing it to go to the nonprofit where the financial planner no longer can draw income. There are many examples, but one clearly convinced a dying donor to create a foundation that the financial planner would be the Trustee. He now uses his role as trustee to attract nonprofits to invest their endowments with his financial planning office getting a grant from this foundation in exchange for investing in his company.
    I have been asked by Indiana Lilly School to assume essentially Visiting Fellow to study nonprofit malfeasance. Without virtually any study, professionals believe as much as 15-20% of significant institutions are involved in some level of inappropriate behavior.

  4. Mark Seeley says:

    Planned giving is also asset giving. It is not always legacy or future giving. A planned gift is a contribution that takes longer than the 2 minutes to write out a check. And a planned gift usually requires a third party to execute; to transfer a deed, or gift a block of common stock or change ownership in a life insurance policy. Planned giving helps your donor make the most significant gift at the least possible cost.

  5. Bob Hartsook, Chair, Hartsook Enterprises, Resources and Trusts and Founder of Hartsook says:

    Good outline, but it misses three essential elements. 1, Getting and keeping an estate designation is a psychological experience (a) the donor needs to tell you they have included you in their estate plan. You now know you have a gift, you can cultivate this donor, don’t think you have closed this gift—you will be closing it for the rest of their lives (b) you need to get them to sign a non binding Letter of Testimonial Intent that gives an estimated value of the gift—not when they are going to die, but what would it be now, (3) You need to discuss why you need this,—you have a goal of new estate gifts, for some institutions estate gifts make up to as much as 50% of their annual support, etc. 3, You need to ask them for permission to announce the gift and celebrate the gift. Don’t let your own values interfere with this request. Most of your donors want people to know. (4) You need to continue to recognize them, celebrate them, just as you would any other donor. (5) just because they have made an estate gift doesn’t mean they can’t make a sizable cash gift or increase their estate gifts. (6) Every major gift officer needs to be trained in this—you don’t need a planned gift officer. If you do what I have described 90% of the gifts will be realized at or near the amount they have committed to.. If you don’t do this and only do what is suggested in this article you will be lucky to get 40% of these commitments to be realized, It is worth the time.

  6. Michael George says:

    Great stuff, and right in line with how we have been working with our nonprofit partners. Thanks so much for the reinforcement of key action points.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *