Building a bridge between the hard and soft side of legacy giving, for you and your donors

Do you avoid legacy planning conversations because you are worried you may not know enough? I suspect the overwhelming majority of fundraisers would admit that they are like I used to be: timid about discussing legacies for fear they might not be able to answer some of the more technical questions.

Written by
Kimberley MacKenzie
May 21, 2014
As Mr Jackson’s story shows, fundraisers need to find a way to make their cause meaningful and personal to their potential legacy donors.

Many generalist fundraisers, like me, fall into this business because we are driven by a passion to change the world – not because we have a fondness for the intricacies of gifts of insurance.

So, are we still qualified to talk to our donors about their estate plans?


There are two very different perspectives in this business of planned giving. There are the warm fuzzy fundraisers who like to visit our donors for tea and perhaps shed a tear or two. Then there are those who like to keep things less emotional, meet at the office, and go into detailed explanations about the ins and outs of complex planned giving mechanisms.

We most definitely have a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ side to gift planning.

I sit very comfortably on the ‘soft’ side.

I often get teary-eyed with my donors and sometimes I cry quietly in my office when I read a will. When I called a donor in response to a note he had written in the hopes of planning a visit and his wife told me he had died the month before we cried together. For me, working with donors to plan the end of their lives is a deeply moving and emotional experience. I can’t think of any greater privilege.

But think of how your donors are feeling. They can’t choose a hard or a soft side – they have to function with both.

I believe it is our job to help build a bridge for our donors between the harder aspects of estate planning and the softer more emotional side of planning for their own death. This belief has recently been affirmed for me on two occasions. Both involve an only child and the stakes for the donors are much higher for that reason.

Mr Jackson’s* story

Mr Jackson called me to discuss leaving a gift to our organisation in his will. He had a fairly specific idea about what exactly he wanted his bequest to accomplish and he was anxious to finalise his estate plans. He wanted to move everything forward very quickly.

In spite of my offer to go and visit, Mr Jackson preferred to come into the city. In his early eighties he was still able to manage the hour long drive to downtown Toronto. So there we sat, in our boardroom, looking at maps. As I listened to Mr Jackson talking to our programme director, I started to worry that this gift was going to be too restrictive. The conversation was going around in circles and I was no longer sure where it was heading.

And then it occurred to me: the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ side of gift planning was all muddled up…for Mr Jackson.

We had to shift gears.

After a few open-ended questions, I learned his wife was going to have surgery the following day, that they were going to move soon and he had been researching nursing homes. His son was in the social services system and would require daily care for the rest of his life; consequently their only child was unable to help. I also learned that he was a little tired and that he loved orchids.

The way forward suddenly became very clear. This is what I said:

‘Mr Jackson, I think we may want to tackle this in two different ways. First, let’s prepare you for the visit with your solicitor next week by deciding how to talk about this bequest in your will. It works better for us to keep the gift designated to the programme you like generally, rather than to be too specific, since we don’t know exactly what our priorities will be many years down the road. Does that sound okay with you?’


‘Secondly, let’s talk specifically about a place that you love. We have a nature reserve with over sixteen species of rare orchids; people travel for hundreds of miles to come and see them. We could thank you for your gift by putting a bench in a quiet place for people to sit and enjoy the orchids. Furthermore, we could do that now so that you can go and find some peace of mind there. Does that sound okay with you?’

Mr Jackson’s eyes glistened, his face softened and he took a deep breath and said yes, he would like that very much. We then proceeded to tackle the hard side and soft side of Mr Jackson’s estate plans together.

Mrs Smith*

A few months into my current job I had to write a thank-you letter to go with a receipt for the payment of an insurance premium.

I had absolutely no idea what this was about.

In the red estate file I saw letters from solicitors and a really thick insurance policy. Upon the death of Mr and Mrs Smith, our organisation would be the beneficiary of a million dollars. With that money we would create a nature reserve in the name of ‘Jim Smith’.

I was in over my head. Without any background or context, it was probably best to write the letter and send the receipt as had obviously been done the year before.

The following year I had to write the thank-you letter again.

Having been on the job for a while, I had time and the mental space to become more curious about this annual transaction. I went back to the file, and learned that ‘Jim Smith’ was the deceased son of Mr and Mrs Smith.

This year the tax receipt would be delivered in person.

Mrs Smith was very pleased to welcome me into her home. We looked at her garden, talked about her dog, and settled in with a hot cup of tea and some cookies. At one point I said, ‘can you tell me about Jim? Is it okay to talk about him?’ Not only was it okay, it was welcome. Mrs Smith told me about her son, who died tragically at the age of 19 from a rare form of bone cancer. We talked about his long battle with cancer, his friends, his funeral, and all the kids who came to it. We talked about the hole that Jim’s death left in their lives, as he was their only child. I learned about a boy who had good marks in school, who had a lot of friends, and loved nature. In fact, once Jim stopped a car full of teenagers to help an injured bird on the side of the road.

Mrs Smith and I did more than share a cup of tea that day; we also shared a few tears while looking at pictures of her son.

On my way home I realised that every time Mrs Smith writes a cheque for the premium on that life insurance policy, she remembers and grieves for her son. Her connection to our charity is a way to keep his memory alive. Knowing that one day a piece of nature in Ontario will be protected forever in his name will be a living legacy for Jim.

There was so much more to this red estate file than a thick insurance policy and letters from solicitors. When I got back to the office I phoned Mrs Smith and thanked her again for her time. I explained that the estate file was pretty dry reading and asked if she would consider writing down Jim’s story and sending us a few pictures. That way everyone who comes across this file will know how very important the thank-you letter is. Of course she was very happy to comply.

The legacy programme in my organisation is extremely active this year, with well over 20 confirmed bequests in the past four months and six conversations with donors about their estate plans in just a few weeks.

Recently, it was time for me to learn more about the technical aspects of planned giving. So last week I attended my very first Canadian Association of Gift Planning national conference. Sitting in Frank Minton’s session, I felt humbled and inspired. I also felt reassured that I am pretty good at the soft side of legacy fundraising.

I hope we can all start to be more intentional about building a bridge between the hard and soft side of gift planning, regardless of which side you are starting on.

The hard side of fundraising does address the intellectual aspects of how to reduce the taxes on an estate so that our donors can leave more money to their families and to charities. We do need to have a basic understanding of the options available when a dialogue with our donors about their estate begins. However, I believe that really successful fundraisers aren’t successful because they understand how to eliminate taxes on an estate. I believe fundraisers are successful because they are empathetic, emotionally intelligent, and are able to move beyond the intellectual aspects of gift planning to the emotional side of planning for the end of life.

The decision about which charity to choose at that time isn’t one that can be made from the head; it is one that is made from the heart and from the soul. A more important part of my job, and I believe yours too, is to offer our donors understanding and hopefully some peace of mind, knowing that their values will live on.

Please don’t wait until you understand charitable gift annuities before you start talking to donors about their estate plans. Gather some basic legacy information, a few good advisors, find a mentor and jump in now. You will be glad you did.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

© Kimberley MacKenzie, 2011

The article was originally published in Gift Planning in Canada, April 2011.

About the author: Kimberley MacKenzie

Kimberley MacKenzie

Kimberley MacKenzie

Director of development at Ontario Nature

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