Should you enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly pro­mote lega­cy giv­ing when peo­ple are dying?

In a time when peo­ple are dying with coro­n­avirus, fundrais­ers could be for­giv­en for balk­ing at ask­ing donors for a gift in their will. Is it sen­si­tive to do so? Claire Axel­rad argues that now is exact­ly the time to be ask­ing for bequests, pro­vid­ed fundrais­ers do so in the right way.

Written by
Claire Axelrad
March 11, 2021

Editor’s note: This article first appeared as a guest blog on Bloomerang. We would like to thank Claire and Bloomerang for allowing SOFII to reproduce the piece here. You can also find it, and more articles by Claire on her website.  

It’s a pandemic. People are dying. A lot of them. So should fundraisers no longer promote legacy giving during this time because it appears ‘unseemly’ to talk to folks about death right now?

Or should they go the other way and promote legacy giving enthusiastically, seeking to get into donors’ wills before they succumb to coronavirus?

There’s no doubt about the fact that people fear death. Which makes it somewhat of a taboo subject for many. No doubt this contributes to the fact most media about coronavirus deaths stick to numbers, not stories. 

In fact there’s a field of experimental psychology, ‘Terror Management Theory’, focusing on how people react when you remind them about death. There are hundreds of experiment results, and many books and papers on the subject. Suffice it to say death is a problem. Seasoned planned giving experts Michael Rosen and Dr Russell James break the results down in their recent whitepaper: Legacy Fundraising: The Best or Worst of Times?

What happens when you promote legacy giving, reminding people of their own mortality?

It turns out there are two principal ways folks respond when confronted with their own mortality. It’s essentially either ‘approach’ or ‘avoidance.’

1. Avoidance

If you send a legacy giving appeal to folks who don’t want to think about death (it’s not happening to me any time soon), they will simply ignore it.

GOOD NEWS: These folks won’t pay a lot of attention to your appeal. They’ll delete it or toss it. It’s highly unlikely they’ll stop giving to you during their lifetimes because you had the temerity to reach out to them about legacy giving. This is a low-risk strategy.

2. Approach

If you send a legacy giving appeal to folks who are comfortable confronting their inevitable death (it happens to everyone), they may see this as an opportunity to assure their values live on. It’s a form of assuring their immortality. 

GOOD NEWS: Just as these folks may leave a legacy for a friend or family member, assuring their memory lives on, they may just as willingly consider a legacy gift that memorializes other parts of their identity. Like the values your organisation enacts, which values they share. This is a high-reward strategy.

What happens differently when you promote legacy giving when folks people know are dying?

1. More avoidance

In the fear of death experiments, social scientists found the more personal death reminders people received the more avoidance they exhibited. Many folks today know someone who has contracted or succumbed to the virus. It feels personal. And the confrontation with a death reminder is daily. So the fact that coronavirus news is layered on top of any legacy giving messaging you may send means more people may react with an avoidance response. Add to this the fact the times in which were living diminish the sense of emotional wellbeing people have; when folks feel a sense of diminished blessings, they exhibit less generosity towards others.

GOOD NEWS: Even if people react this way, they’re still unlikely to stop giving to you otherwise simply because you broached the subject of legacy giving. You may get less folks opening your emails or letters, so you’ll want to adapt your strategies and expectations accordingly. This is still a low-risk strategy.

2. Enhanced approach

Because people have a more heightened sense of impending mortality than usual, many are doing whatever they can to increase their sense of autonomy and wellbeing. They can’t control the virus but can control how they live with the virus by taking preventive measures. Besides wearing masks, socially distancing and/or even trying out untested treatments, people can connect with like-minded individuals and organisations to try to make a difference and enhance their sense of wellbeing.

GOOD NEWS: When you offer people the opportunity to take some control over their situation by making a meaningful philanthropic gift you also offer them the opportunity to feel better emotionally and psychologically. This may be perceived as especially significant during times like these when people feel loss of control in so many aspects of their lives. Layer on this the fact that people feel isolated and disconnected from others, and the opportunity to connect with your cause may strike a particularly resonant chord. The people who do take the approach response may actually approach with more receptivity because all these things are top of mind. This is still a high-reward strategy.

When people feel a diminished sense of well-being, they’ll seek to do something to feel better.

There are many factors affecting well-being. If a doctor can help you feel better, you’ll likely feel grateful to that doctor. In fact, this is a foundation of hospital ‘grateful patient’ fundraising. If a religious congregation can help you feel connected and supported, you’ll likely feel grateful to that congregation. In fact, this is a key tenet of faith-based fundraising. But you don’t need to be a healthcare or religious charity to help people feel better. 

One key contributor to wellbeing is a sense of meaning. If you can help a donor develop a sense of purpose, agency and significance, they’ll likely feel grateful to you. That gratitude may be expressed in the form of a legacy gift.

GOOD NEWS: By now you’re likely familiar with the MRI experiments showing when people even contemplate giving they receive a dopamine rush that lights up the pleasure centre of their brains. Giving offers people a ‘warm glow’ feeling. This is something legacy giving can offer to folks. 

It’s increasingly understood that giving is good for people.

All giving, whether to friends, family or even strangers is experienced as pleasurable. Non-charitable or charitable, legacy giving included. The same feel good chemicals of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine – known as the ‘Happy Trifecta’ – and endorphins are released. 

When folks are feeling powerless – as is the case today – giving can give them back their powerI, for one, have never thought more about the importance of safeguarding democracy and civil liberties. I am so grateful for the organisations fighting on this front, and for the people who left past legacy gifts to assure these institutions would live to fight another day. Would this be a bad time for one of these organisations to approach me for a legacy gift? Or a particularly good time?

Ask enthusiastically, but don’t hit folks over the head with a hammer.

Success in fundraising is all about how you frame what you’re doing. Legacy fundraising should always be respectful. In fact, all fundraising should. 

Is your ask suffused with joy or clothed in apology?  When you understand giving is good for people, then ideas like ‘sorry, I need to twist your arm’ or ‘it’s time to hit you up’ naturally fall away. And these are the regretful approaches that seem particularly odious right now. 

Don’t begin your appeal with ‘Worried you may die soon?’ Of course, that seems obvious. But if you dig for the reasons folks in your organisation may feel uncomfortable asking for legacy gifts right now, you’ll find that’s how they view any such appeals. Their own discomfort with death – their personal ‘avoidance’ attitude – is seeping in. And, naturally, that’s not what you’re going to do. It’s okay to be direct, just not crude. 

Remember, you’re not begging, nor are you taking something away. You are giving something by offering a way for people to make a meaningful, ‘feel good’ transfer from their financial portfolio to their social portfolio.

People are making wills right now more than ever.

People visit their attorneys when ‘death becomes real.’ Usually it’s difficult to persuade folks, even those willing to consider a legacy gift, to visit their attorney during times they’re not thinking about death. Most folks consider writing, or changing, a will during life cycle transitions, such as birth, marriage, divorce, widowhood or illness diagnosis. Sometimes it happens as people are about to engage in something risky, like fly overseas, climb a mountain or parachute jump. Right now we’re living in one of those transitional cycles.

No matter what you do or don’t do, a lot of folks are calling on their attorneys. Now is different. Google search results for ‘will planning’ are higher than they’ve ever been. Essential workers are writing wills in droves, and attorneys are even volunteering to help them. Mostly these folks are thinking about protecting their family and loved ones. But some of them love your cause too! And most good attorneys will ask clients if they wish to make a charitable bequest.

What happens when they get to the subject of legacy giving and your donor goes online searching for charitable beneficiaries? If you’re not actively promoting legacy giving, people may not know you’re set up to accept and manage bequests. So, at the very least, make sure you’ve got this information on your website. And don’t bury it! Go to your website and pretend you want to leave a bequest to your organisation. Can you figure out how to do so? How many clicks does it take to find what you’re looking for? Do you offer useful information like suggested language to include your charity in their will? Or how to name you as a beneficiary of a retirement plan or insurance policy? If it’s a difficult process, now is a good time to make the experience more user-friendly. 

It’s better to be active than passive. Your goal is always to be top of mind so folks think of you when charitable giving comes to mind. Donors need to know you make an impact. They need to know you’ve been around a while (ten years is enough) and will continue to serve. They need to know other folks like them do this sort of thing – which is why telling legacy donors’ stories is so powerful. More than once I’ve had a donor call me to say: ‘I saw Joe and Mary made a bequest/set up a memorial, and I want to do that too.’ Similarly, I’ve received calls saying: ‘I had no idea the Loans and Grants Program was established by a 1948 bequest that grew to today’s size; I’d love to do something similar.’

Here are some simple ways to promote legacy giving.

Here’s why you should promote legacy giving – at all times.

People are always dying. Sometimes more than other times, but no one is immune to death. Not every one of your supporters will choose to look it in the face at any point in time, but it’s not for you to decide on others’ behalf whether they may or may not wish to consider the ramifications of their own mortality. Any more than it should be your decision whether to ask your constituents for an outright gift or not.

When you make excuses on behalf of others you do no one any favours. It’s presumptuous at best. And, arguably, downright stingy. Dr Adrian Sargeant and Dr Elaine Jay found 88.7 per cent of donors indicated they believe it is appropriate for non-profits to ask for legacy gifts. In fact, donors encourage organisations they care about to communicate with them regularly and through different communication channels. They understand their attention spans are short, and what interests them today may not be what interested them yesterday or tomorrow.

Don’t be shy about asking for legacy gifts! 

My Mom always said, ‘You can’t take it with you.’ There are others who subscribe to that same philosophy, and who may be looking for places to leave a piece of their legacy. Would you deny them this opportunity?

Legacy giving seizes victory from the jaws of defeat. Whether folks close to you have passed away, or you’re confronted with death and dying on a global scale, or you’re simply afraid of dying yourself, legacy giving can:

  • Create happiness
  • Promote wellbeing
  • Instil a sense of autonomy and power
  • Offer purpose and meaning
  • Provide tax benefits

I’ll leave you with another beautiful quote from Jeff Brooks, who writes about the numerous ways giving yields financial, emotional, psychological and physical health benefits, not to mention creating habits of virtue:

If you find yourself these days ‘hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light’, read this poem left to us by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson.


Sometimes as an antidote 

To fear of death,  

I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back, 

I suck them from the quenching dark 

Til they are all, all inside me, 

Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself 

Into a universe still young, 

Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space, 

The light of all the not yet stars 

Drifting like a bright mist, 

And all of us, and everything 

Already there 

But unconstrained by form.

And sometimes it’s enough 

To lie down here on earth 

Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields 

Of our discarded skulls, 

Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis, 

Thinking: whatever left these husks 

Flew off on bright wings.

Help your donors to eat the stars.

About the author: Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organisations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP ‘Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year’ award. Claire runs ‘Clairification School’ online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.

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