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Why is giving by bequest so rare? You know that brochure you send out about charitable bequests? Behind your back, donors call it the
Tom Ahern

September, 2008

Giving by bequest in the United States, where most of my readers ply their trade, is a relatively small contributor to the yearly philanthropic haul; 7.6% of the total, says Giving USA 2008.

In the U.K., contrastingly, giving by bequest amounts to almost 30% of what the top 500 charities take in, researchers Adrian Sargeant and Elaine Jay reported in 2004.

Why the difference in results? Communications errors are partly to blame. Every charity offers some kind of informational brochure about charitable bequests, and most of them are warm spit. Here are the mistakes to avoid:

Mistake number one: Pushing "planned giving" instead of bequests.

First off, "planned giving" is shameless industry jargon. Why are you even using it? It's exclusive, rather than inclusive, for this sinfully obvious reason: only the indoctrinated have any idea what "planned giving" means. Mystifying most of your potential customers is always a bad start, trust me.

Worse, though, is the poorly informed assumption that all planned gifts are created equal. They are not. According to experts, 80%-90% of all planned gifts turn out to be bequests. A brochure that devotes half its space to talking about other, far less likely, ways of giving is just incompetent.

Focus, people. You are selling bequests: first, foremost, and forever. Sure, you can cross-sell a bit. But "giving by means other than bequests" should occupy no more than 10%-20% of your brochure's space; in the back, out of the way, as a postscript. Or leave these items out completely; no one will notice their absence. Things like charitable remainder unitrusts deserve their own brochures anyway.

Mistake number two: Indulging in accountant-ese.

You see these brochures all the time. They read like insurance policies. They're written by soul-challenged technocrats. And they are my personal favorites: I use them to start fires on cold winter nights.

A good bequest brochure respects the reader's non-technical status and has excellent people skills. Explanations are dirt simple, in plain English (and plain Spanish, since you'll want to be in that market, too; and plain French, up in Canada). The writing is quick to skim, written at the 6th- to 8th-grade level. It does not intimidate, confuse or frustrate prospects. Instead, it welcomes them in, with warm stories, charming photography, inspiration, and easy-going prose.

The following all-too-common, real-life example is NOT easy-going prose: "Bequests can take various forms: A specific bequest directs that XYZ University receive specific assets. A general bequest directs that XYZ University receive a percentage (2%, 5%, 10% etc.) of the estate or a specified dollar amount...." Writing like this tortures readers. It doesn't help or inspire them.

Mistake number three: Harping on "when you're gone...."
This is the biggie. Researcher Richard Radcliffe (a delightfully irreverent Brit I hope you get to listen to at least once in your workshop-going lives) reports that donors in his focus groups have a term for brochures that suffer from mistake number three.

Donors deride them as "death brochures." And he's quite clear: "They do NOT want your death brochures."

Making a charitable gift in your will is an opportunity to change the world. It is NOT -- repeat, NOT -- an opportunity to reflect on your mortality, and your inevitable extinction. Radcliffe recommends you trim back the talk of legacy even; it's a bit gloomy, all told.

Reminding people of their destined death is rude and unwelcome. Talking about their living values and interests is not. His mantra: "Bequests are life-driven, death-activated." A bequest is a decision made by a living, breathing person. Treat it that way, and you'll do much better. Have fun (I'm not kidding). Stay away from the muted organ music and the whispers about "when you're gone...."

Now go read this book

Iceberg Philanthropy. The core of this provocative, informative little book is original research funded by its publisher, Canada's FLA Group, and world-famous direct mail guru, Mal Warwick. The research quizzed donors who made frequent small gifts about their charitable bequest intentions -- and discovered an almost-untapped philanthropic bonanza. If you want to do better with bequests, this one-of-a-kind book has a lot of useful things to tell you.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada.Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design.

In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries.He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church. A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit 


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