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AFP Funded Research: Why People Leave Bequests

(Sept. 8, 2008) New research into bequest giving shows that bequest donors give for different reasons and respond to different forms of cultivation and recognition than other types of donors.

The report, Identification, Death and Bequest Giving, conducted by Adrian Sargeant, Robert F. Hartsook Professor of Fundraising at Indiana University and Jen Shang of Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, offers practical tips on how to better approach, solicit and recognize bequest donors.

Through a series of focus groups of donors to three nonprofits, Sargeant and Shang found that many of the ‘traditional’ motives for annual gift donors, in particular, are not applicable to bequest giving.

Like annual gift donors, bequest donors say they give out of a desire for prestige and, much more commonly, a desire to give back to an organization, Sargeant explains. But bequest donors specifically have a desire to be remembered, to reduce the payment of taxes and a desire to make a larger, longer term impact on a cause.

The scholars suggest that it is not as effective to speak in terms of immediate need or the individual services that each dollar supports, but rather to speak in terms of the future goals of the organization and the broader social significance of the bequest. To do this, Sargeant and Shang say fundraisers need to articulate to bequest donors a longer term and coherent plan for what the organization is trying to achieve.

Other unique considerations that cross the minds of bequest donors are the cost of healthcare as they age and their desire to leave money to family, and in some cases, close friends. Several focus group participants noted a desire to leave money to charity rather than their family members, explaining that they will leave some money to family, but that the money will make a bigger difference in the hands of a nonprofit.

Practical Advice

Based on the research they reviewed and conducted in their study, Sargeant and Shang make several conclusions meant to improve fundraising practices. A few of their suggestions are listed below.

  • Bequest messages should be communicated to all supporter groups, irrespective of their current value. Potential bequest donors are likely to appear at every value level within the database. It is not only major donors who may be willing to make this category of gift; even low value supporters who may be asset-rich but cash-poor can support a nonprofit in this way. Examining giving histories is therefore not a good way in which to identify bequest prospects, although there is some evidence that longer-term supporters are more likely to offer support in this way.
  • Encouraging giving to general funds is unlikely to be an optimal strategy. Individuals should be encouraged to give because of the real and tangible difference that they themselves could make. The literature suggests that organizations would fare better asking for funding for a specific purpose, or as part of a commitment to a long term organizational plan.
  • As with annual giving, charities need to get the message across that every bequest they receive will have a real impact on the nature of their work. Fundraisers should recognize and celebrate donors for their bequest, be it large or small in amount.
  • Solicitations should be aspirational in nature. Bequest appeals should be based on the realistic future needs of the organization. Appeals that resemble the rationale for annual support (particularly those that cite current need as an example) are likely to be sub-optimal. Bequest decisions seem to be taken on the basis of perceptions of future need and there is some evidence that donors will have heightened expectations of what the organization will be able to achieve in the future.
  • Bequest donors should be treated as a separate segment on the database. Given that only 25 percent of bequest donors report being treated differently by their support organization, post pledge, it would appear that organizations with a separate communications strategy will presently have a significant advantage.

About the Study

Sargeant and Shang conducted eight focus groups of donors to three nonprofits in hopes of better explaining the motives behind charitable bequests. The report reviews the existing literature on the topic and offers advice to fundraising practitioners.

This research was funded by AFP’s Legacy Leaders Planned Giving Research Grant Program made possible by a gift to the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy by Legacy Leaders Inc.

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