Is this the best way to develop bequests?

Most organisations are surprised when they receive bequests. Many of the people who leave bequests do not even appear on the organisation’s donor file, and most of the others have been only low value donors for a number of years (and are often lapsed) — not the kind of people who you might expect to leave a large bequest.

Written by
Rich Fox
June 02, 2012
Gone are the days when the telephone was just ‘that scary black thing in the hallway’. Now fundraisers are learning to love the phone and to use it wisely and well.

It was with this in mind that I created the Legacy Leadership Programme. It occurred to me that there were probably many other similar people who were not leaving bequests to nonprofits, but who might do so if properly identified, motivated and cultivated. Further, even those who were leaving such bequests might give far more (including possibly major outright gifts) if they too were identified and cultivated effectively while alive.

The programme uses a combination of direct mail and the telephone in an extraordinarily soft and non-aggressive manner to find these people and move many of them to write a will naming the organisation and/or letting the organisation know that they are doing so.

I first created this programme in the UK in the 1990s; since then I have refined it and used it effectively in the United States, as well. My company is about to introduce it to four other European countries.

The special characteristic of this approach is that it uses both direct mail and telephone in a relationship-building manner, which should seamlessly integrate with all other legacy marketing and planned giving activities.

The LLP’s impact can be very constructive. It turns an extreme negative for most organisations – the inevitable ageing of donors – into an outstanding positive. This programme can create an endowment for an organisation that will ensure its future for all time.

A legacy communication or marketing programme can greatly enhance almost any nonprofit’s long-term financial security. But the resulting gifts are rarely immediate, so measuring the success of such a programme can take years. Often, we’re forced to examine relatively intangible criteria – such as the number of inquiries received or information packets sent.

That’s the reason behind the Legacy Leadership Programme. The LLP’s integrated approach creates an effective and immediately measurable way to encourage donors to include your organisation in their wills, or to consider creating a lifetime or charitable remainder trust in your favour.

The process consists of six phases:

1. Targeting

The best prospects are generally current and lapsed donors – best of all, long-term givers and older donors without any children – plus any individuals who have specifically inquired about planned giving, or about leaving money in their wills.

2. Opt-out pre-letter

This letter,

  • Thanks donors for their lifetime support and explains the organisation’s need for bequests and charitable remainder trusts. The letter reminds prospects that many people don’t like to think about writing a will and thus, despite their best intentions, don’t adequately ensure that their wishes are carried out.
  • Stresses that it is not a request for another contribution and then introduces the concept of the legacy programme. The letter explains that donors needn’t indicate the amount of money they intend to leave the organisation, merely that they should indicate that they intend to participate in the programme. An enclosed enrolment form also includes an opt-out box for prospects to declare they’re not interested.
  • Explains that as soon as the organisation receives a donor’s enrolment form, his or her name will be inscribed immediately in a place of honour at the institution and will be published prominently among the organisation’s donors, to help motivate others to follow the example.
  • Points out, finally, that the legacy programme is so important to the organisation’s future that a representative will call to explain the programme and answer questions – but only if donors do not return the enrolment form to indicate whether or not they’ll participate.

For the pre-letter, I recommend a first class, personalised letter and pledge form with a business reply envelope (BRE), or freepost envelope for the reply.

3. Very, very, very, very, very, very soft service call

The next step is to call prospects that don’t respond within three weeks of receiving the initial mailing. The message,

  • Includes a reference to the letter.
  • Tells them that the call is to explain the programme further and to answer questions.
  • Reminds them that the size of bequest isn’t important. What’s important is setting an example others will follow.
  • Explains how they can remain anonymous and still participate.
  • Lets them know that when they sign the enrolment form they’ll be sent more detailed information, including the correct language to use in their wills and a helpline number to call with any further questions.
  • Asks if they have any questions and if they might be willing to participate.

Those who say yes or maybe are sent another enrolment form the next day.

4. An immediate thank-you package to those who enrol

This package includes a thank-you letter, an inscribed certificate, a framed photograph or calligraphic replica of the inscription, plus sample language to be inserted in the donor’s will, as well as, in the USA, information about the value of irrevocable charitable remainder trusts. The letter cites a helpline phone number that prospects, or their attorney/solicitor, can call with any questions.

5. Very, very, very, very, very, very soft reminder package and telephone call

To encourage the broadest possible participation, we directed a series of reminders at those prospects that said yes but haven’t yet returned their enrolment forms. The series consists of,

A third enrolment form (and covering letter) about four weeks after the first telephone call.
Four weeks later, a very, very soft reminder call with a follow-up enrolment package to those who pledge again.

6. Cultivation and bonding

Three months after sending the thank-you package, it’s time for another very, very soft reminder call to,

  • Make sure they’ve received the letter.
  • Ask if their attorney found the bequest language helpful.
  • Ask if any further information is needed.
  • Ask if they’re interested in learning more about charitable remainder trusts.
  • At this point, the nonprofit has the option of asking those who’ve indicated that they’ve written the organisation into their wills if they would consider sending a copy of that section of the will to the nonprofit, to help ensure that the donor’s wishes are properly carried out.

Those who indicate during this follow-up call that they have yet to consult their attorney/ legal advisor should receive another very, very, soft call about six months later to see if they’ve done this.

The first test results in the UK were as follows:

Case A Case B Case C
Responses to pre-letter
Response with enrolment 0.9% 0.2% 5.2%
Opting out 6.0% 2.6% 9.7%
Total pre-letter response 6.9% 2.8% 14.9%
Responses to telephone call
Definite yes 15.5% 15.8% 38.16%
Will consider29.3% 27.7% 26.12%
Total positive telephone response 44.8% 43.5% 64.28%
Case A = non-donor inquiries to a health charity.
Case B = 1/3 non-donors, 1/3 lapsed donors, 1/3 one-time donors to an environmental group.
Case C = monthly donors (also called sustainers) to an AIDS charity.

This most effective bequest identification and legacy marketing programme builds relationships and generates pledges while provoking very few complaints.

About the author: Rich Fox

Rich Fox

Rich Fox is one of the world’s top specialist telephone fundraisers. 

Few people come close to Rich Fox in experience of using the telephone as an integral tool to strengthen and deepen donor relationships. Rich introduced telephone fundraising to the UK in the early 1990s. His consultancy practice now spans several continents and includes many top clients on both sides of the Atlantic. Rich is chairman and CEO of telephone fundraising specialists Rich Fox & Associates, Inc, of Malibu, California, USA. He can be reached on 1-831-659-1123 and at

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