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Friday, January 19, 2018

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Richard Radcliffe has your back
Tom Ahern

April, 2009

Are you marketing bequests? (Right.) Or "planned gifts"? (Wrongo.)

I love selling the idea of putting a charitable gift in your will. It just feels right. And it's such easy money for charities. It's not even low-hanging fruit. It's fruit already picked, peeled, and artfully displayed on your plate. Just reach out and eat it.

Of course, it's all "tomorrow dollars," not cash you can use today.

You never know when the gift will finally arrive. My wife and I wrote our first will, complete with charitable bequests, in our early 40s, about halfway into our estimated lifespan.

I don't know. Maybe that delayed reward is why the U.S. record for raising money through bequests is so distinctly dismal. Maybe we Americans - and I'm going all weepy politico-psycho-sociological on you for a second - just do not think enough about tomorrow.

Dismal, I say? Distinctly dismal? Consider. In the U.S., less than 10% of annual charity comes in via bequests. In the U.K., by comparison, roughly a third of the annual haul is bequest giving. I mean, really: What do the Brits know that American fundraisers don't?

More than a few things, I'll wager. And let me throw this stink bomb into the classroom. I've analyzed a lot of materials -- brochures, websites, letters, campaigns -- created to stimulate bequest giving. As a class, it is wretched,
solipsistic, grave, dry stuff. I'm surprised the U.S. has any bequest giving, given how we try to sell it.

Here are a few tips from UK-based Richard Radcliffe, dean of legacy gift researchers. These are lessons learned from thousands of interviews he's conducted with those who have added charitable bequests to their wills:

  • Women leave 78% of the legacies.
  • They are mostly NOT wealthy.
  • Legacy makers have beliefs and a history of giving. (That's why the fruit is so readily available. Check your database. Find those who have given to you for five years running. They're your best candidates for bequests.)
  • Trust is a huge issue. They want to know with whom they're dealing. In your materials, display photos of your gift officers, with their names and titles.
  • Most like events such as an annual meeting. Few want face to face, one on one meetings.
  • Every focus group says, "Make me aware. But don't ask." Bequest marketing is not a hard ask.
  • Write a "legacy vision." That vision would include (1) proof of your organization's impact; (2) proof of future need; and (3) proof you are cost-efficient.
  • Be warm, informative, brief. "Write like you're writing to your mum." Hint: talking about "planned gifts" in your best accounting-ese is NOT going to work.
  • For many, the word "legacy" hints at death. Use terms like "gift in your will" instead.
  • Make your message joyful. Bequests are, in Richard's ringing words, "Life driven, death activated."

Regurgitated with the casual permission ("Say, you want to head for the bar?") of the admirable Mr. Radcliffe.

Takeaway: Bequest marketing is not about the transaction. It's about deepening a relationship with an existing donor. It's not a tactic for paying the bills this year. It's a strategy for ensuring your organization's sustainability into the long-sighted future.


Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit communications. He began presenting his top-rated Love Thy Reader workshops at fundraising conferences in 1999.

Since then he has introduced thousands of fundraisers in the U.S., Canada and Europe to the principles of reader psychology, writing, and graphic design that make donor communications highly engaging and successful.

He founded his consulting practice in 1990 ( His firm specializes in capital campaign case statements, nonprofit communications audits, direct mail, and donor newsletters. His efforts have won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, given each year to the best communications work worldwide.

Ahern is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health and social justice issues. He has his MA and BA in English from Brown University, and a Certificate in Advertising Art from the RI School of Design. His offices are in Rhode Island and France.


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