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Planned Giving in the Black Church

By Heather Gee, CFRE, CAP

Historically, the black church has been and continues to be the center of the black community. It is the place where people go to commune, worship and find emotional, social and spiritual support. As it relates to black philanthropy, the church has always been the No. 1 beneficiary. Black churches have thrived on weekly financial offerings and, obviously, the larger the congregation, the larger the financial support. In addition, churches often have conducted supplemental fundraising activities such as dinners, bake sales, flea markets and socials. These events not only raised additional dollars for the church, but also provided an opportunity to further participate in the church community.

Although change within the church tends to be generally slow, over the years there have indeed been some external changes in the church marketplace. As more and more religious denominations have evolved, churches have spread from the one church in a community to several churches. This means that the number, size and maturity of churches have diversified. You now can find tiny “storefront” churches on street corners with congregations of fewer than 50 people. These newer, smaller churches are often struggling to stay afloat. The mid-size churches typically have been around for a while and are more stable with congregations numbering in the hundreds. More and more, we now hear about the new “mega churches” often with very strong, dynamic leaders who grow their churches into colossal buildings, housing thousands of congregants.

No matter what the size, age or denomination, most churches have not implemented traditional fundraising strategies or employed professional fundraisers. Typically, if there is someone who is charged with raising money for the church outside of Sunday services, it is usually a church member who has had no formal fundraising training and often no access to mentoring or guidance.

As is also the case with so many nonprofit organizations, taking the financial and organizational step of hiring a full-time fundraising professional is too great for the typical church to take. For traditional fundraising strategies, acquiring high-level, religiously based fundraising training for the leadership and volunteers might be a good first step.

However, there may be resistance on the part of the church leaders, who see traditional fundraising strategies negatively affecting the monthly financial support of its members. While we know this is not true, this misperception would need to be addressed.

One way to alleviate this concern might be to start focusing on planned gifts. By implementing a bequest program—encouraging members to leave the church in their wills or other estate plans—monthly offerings should not be affected. Since mid-size and large churches have long-standing members with a strong commitment and belief in the church, this might be an area with great potential.

It all starts with six simple steps and six powerful words:

1. Create a “Legacy Society.” Choose a name that will be meaningful to the congregation. Something symbolic might work, as well as naming it after a recognized person or historic figure of the church.

2. Determine what planned gifts you will include in your society. Many organizations will include people who have made a provision in a simple will and named the organization as a charitable beneficiary of a trust or life insurance policy. If the organization is not willing or able to offer charitable gift annuities or pooled income funds, many community foundations have very cost-effective programs that will help them offer these popular gifts.

3. Determine what kind of recognition members will receive. Few people do not enjoy public recognition. Determine where your legacy members can be recognized, especially in print. Newsletters, bulletins and annual reports are good places to start. Some organizations use engraved plaques with members’ names on metal nameplates (be sure you can remove the plates in the event that someone decides to no longer participate). There are many companies that specialize in recognition plaques.

4. Invite everyone to join the society and tell them how they can. A common misperception is that only older people are good planned-giving prospects. While they are indeed good prospects (especially if they have no heirs), younger and younger people around the country are making planned gifts. Remember, anyone who has a will can include your organization as a beneficiary. Also, if this is a new legacy society, keep in mind that you have the opportunity to offer an added benefit to members who join in the first years: they always will be recognized as founding members!

5. Tell your stories. Take every opportunity to tell the stories of why your legacy society members decided to make such a commitment. It will inspire others to do the same.

6. Never let them forget. The only way bequest programs work is if the organization consistently reminds people of six simple words: “Please remember us in your will!”

Heather Gee, CFRE, CAP, is vice president, development services, with The Philadelphia Foundation and a member of the AFP Communications and Marketing Committee.

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