Planting Seeds for Generations to Come: Cultivating Planned Gift Donors | npENGAGE

Planting Seeds for Generations to Come: Cultivating Planned Gift Donors

By on Aug 9, 2012


I’m often asked if there’s a secret to starting a planned gift program that will bear fruit quickly and then for many years into the future.  The answer is “Yes!” there is a secret and I’m going to share it with you now.  “Get to know your most loyal donors, personally.”

There!  The secret is out and it’s really not a new one.  But it’s one that seems to be sound too simple.  Is there a catch?  You bet!  You have to build the relationships in order to garner these very special gifts.  With the average bequest in the U.S. hovering between $35,000 and $70,000 and at around $30,000 in Canada, you can’t afford to alienate your planned-gift donors through lack of communication.  So, when was the last time you personally spoke to the people who are most likely to leave legacy gifts to your organization?

Consider this: As few as 15 people making average planned gifts have the ability, when combined, to provide your organization with more than a million dollars.  Now – today – this very minute –  is the time to incorporate daily outreach and cultivation with planned-gift prospects. A simple, yet strategic effort provides your legacy givers with a two-way relationship and builds an intentional bond with these future major donors that improve your chances of receiving increased gifts from them now, as well as increased or additional legacy gifts in the future.

Every fundraising professional eventually becomes acquainted with the fundraising pyramid.  It’s an effective visual aid that provides a solicitation continuum from entry-level donor as the foundation to ultimate donor at the apex. Both major and planned-gift donors reside together in the pyramid’s peak.  Unfortunately, we often view this pyramid from the wrong angle and most of our personalized communications and outreach focus on the top rather than the bottom.

Take this opportunity to change how you see the pyramid.  Instead of waiting for a person to reach out and communicate with you, put a plan into motion that communicates personally with your prospect group.  Find your most loyal constituents and engage them in the planned gift conversation.  This includes donors who give consistently; say 6 out of the last 10 years or who have made 20, 30 or 50 gifts to your organization in the past – no matter the size of the gift itself.  Perhaps they show their loyalty through long-term volunteerism, or annual event attendance.  Maybe they raise the most funds for your bike or walk event, or they pledge a portion of their business sales to you each year.  This group of engaged constituents is your most likely planned gift donor, thus, your mostly likely future major donor!  The only thing that distinguishes them from your current major gift donor is timing and it’s important that you communicate with them, each of them, as if they were a major donor today.

So cultivating your planned gift donor is easy.  Do the same things you would for a $35,000 or $50,000 donor, including “Thank you” calls and handwritten notes or hand-signed letters when their annual gift is received or after the special event has concluded.  Be certain they receive the annual report and other high-level communications. Thoughtful gratitude and communication cost nothing.   Letting these future major donors know that you consider them investors today creates a growing bond for the future and increases your likelihood of receiving their substantial planned gift later.

Be certain to include simple planned-gift donor stories in your general organizational publications and insert them into annual-fund communications to reach your extended deferred-gift audience. Inspiring examples of future intentions spread the excitement of possibilities. Share what a few have done and urge others to seek information.  Be certain that your front-line fundraisers are planned-gift donors themselves. As a donor, you transform from solicitor to peer and discussing legacy giving with prospects becomes a natural conversation rather than an uncomfortable solicitation.  Strategic cultivation increases your organization’s image, reputation and priority with both current and future planned-gift donors.

Take time to consider the rewards. Consistent and meaningful cultivation that produces a future major gift from your loyal constituent group secures your mission’s future.  Plant your seeds now, and your garden will be thriving before you know it!

*Katherine Swank is a consultant for Target Analytics. You may reach her at

Katherine has over 30 years of experience in the fundraising industry as a consultant, development officer and advancement team manager. As a member of Blackbaud’s analytics consulting team for over a decade, she facilitates strategic, client-facing content for Blackbaud’s custom modeling, wealth screening, and prospect research solutions to enhance clients’ development efforts with data-driven strategies.  Before assuming this role, she served as the national director of gift planning at
the National Multiple Sclerosis Society home office. Katherine has raised over $200 million during her career. She is a past president of the Colorado Planned Giving Roundtable, a former lawyer and also served as an affiliation faculty member at Regis University where she taught development-related courses at the master’s level for more than 10 years. She is a frequent speaker at BBCON, NACGP, Apra, AFP and other industry conferences.

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