Last week, I sat in on my umpteenth webinar on how to fundraise in the midst of a global pandemic. There was more of the same sage advice:

  • Keep mailing
  • Engage with your donors
  • Don’t be tone deaf (I’ll be happy to never hear that term again.)

I perked up when the conversation wandered over to donor-advised funds at the end of the session and then started to hint at my other favorite topic, planned giving. “It’s about to get really good now, I thought.” To my surprise, the group didn’t seem to have much insight, thought, or curiosity in the subject.

I was a tad puzzled by this lack of discussion in my favorite subject (I’m a big believer in leading your direct response donors on a journey to make a planned gift.) But I think it’s just more of our tendency to stay in our lane and cling to our old, “my-donor/your-donor” way of thinking.

Thus began my musing. What IS happening in the world of planned giving right now?

I Googled a bit and found that we have an incredible opportunity on our hands.

Let’s start by taking a look inside the minds of our donors.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most of us don’t enjoy thinking about our death.

Terror Management Theory” is the official term for this behavior we exhibit as a defense against the unthinkable. It’s how we humans manage our fear of death.

We do this in two ways:

  1. Avoidance
  2. Developing cultural worldviews

The first, avoidance, is easy to grasp –

Let’s say a global pandemic struck and we were suddenly faced with daily reports of death tolls from all around the world – including right here in the US. Not speaking from actual, personal experience of course but I imagine my avoidance instincts would go into overdrive and you might find me under my weighted blanket zoned out with Netflix. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

That’s avoidance.

But the second sounds a bit jargon-y so let’s break it down.

Developing cultural worldviews just means that we create beliefs that add meaning and therefore, value to our lives. This minimizes the feelings of dread that arise when we think about death. Experts call this achieving symbolic immortality. We convince ourselves that having children, amassing wealth, being part of a great nation, and creating a legacy are all deeply meaningful and make it easier for us to come to grips with the idea of our eventual demise.

Let’s go back to avoidance for a minute. Covid-19 is making avoidance pretty difficult right now and when we can’t avoid thinking about death, we strive for some sense of control. On the direct response front, we are seeing donors responding to the crisis. They are giving larger gifts in an attempt to attain some advantage over this virus that has experts baffled.

That’s not surprising though, right? Direct mail donors are some of the best people out there. They’re loyal, big-hearted, caring folks – the type that would give you the shirt off their back. Good thing too, since our organizations are relying on them now more than ever.

On the planned giving front, something even more interesting is happening.

People are completing wills in record numbers.

This not only gives one a sense of control but also offers that symbolic immortality that we crave. Add to that, a lockdown where many of us find ourselves with more time and less to do and you’ve got thousands of Americans scrambling to set up their estate plans. This insight into our donors’ thinking is a crucial piece of information and incredible news for fundraisers, right?! Fire up the presses! We’ve got planned giving brochures to print!

Not so fast, friends.

One thing hasn’t changed. Planned Giving marketing is still the delicate endeavor it’s always been and it’s even more complicated now because we certainly don’t want to seem like ambulance chasers. At the same time, it’s important not to err on the side of being overly sensitive by robbing donors of the opportunity to create the legacy that we humans are wired to do.

To help our fellow fundraisers tiptoe through the planned giving tulips, we’ve come up with this shortlist of actions you can take now to position your organization for substantial revenue from planned gifts down the road.

  1. Pick up the phone. Get every member of your development team to make one call to a donor per day. With no commute, they’ve got time, I promise you. Don’t overcomplicate it. Just grab your last transaction file and start with this three (ish) sentence thank you script:

    Hi Jane Donor, I’m Fran Fundraiser over here at XYZ Org and I’m just calling to thank you for the gift you sent last week. Your partnership means so much to all of us and the (children, animals, people, etc.) we serve — especially at a time like this. Hope you and your family are safe and healthy – have a great day!

    In most cases, you’ll reach a voicemail but you may be lucky enough to speak with a live donor! They will most likely be surprised and delighted by your call and you may even glean some valuable insights for your future fundraising. At the very least, I guarantee it will put a smile on your face – and who couldn’t use that these days?
  2. Pick up your pen. Grab some notecards and repeat step one – only this time, have each member of the team write a brief note to a donor. Use the script below and in just 5 minutes a day, you’ve got a meaningful touchpoint going out to a loyal and valued donor.

    Dear Jane, Lately, I’m reminded of how fortunate XYZ Org is to have friends like you. Your commitment to our work and those we serve means so much to all of us. Hope you and your family are safe and healthy at this difficult time.
    Fran Fundraiser

    I promise you, this memorable ‘moment’ will yield high dividends at year-end and beyond!
  3. Use your buck slips wisely. Instinct might tell you to put a flashy planned giving buck slip into all of your mail pieces but we have a better idea. Create a buck slip that includes planned giving as just one of many options a donor has for giving. This way, we downplay the planned giving suggestion and make the most of the opportunity to market other gifts. It’s up to us to make donors aware of their options for giving and it’s simply good stewardship. Donors who may not be able to make a cash gift today will appreciate knowing there’s another way to continue their support!
  4. Get your data in order. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s still do-able. For planned giving leads from your direct response file, compile a list of donors for each of the following:
    • Consecutive Givers (3+ years)
    • Inception date of 5+ years ago
    • Monthly Givers
    • Donors with Donor Advised Funds
    • Donors of $50+ on direct mail acquisition

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be asked what your department is doing about planned giving. Have these lists at your fingertips and you’ll be one step ahead of the game!

  1. Audit your acknowledgment process. Now is the perfect time to make sure your processes are shipshape! Make a gift to your organization and see if there are improvements to be made. Does the copy need a refresh? Is there a BRE included? Is it time to try a new format? Are there ways to make it more personal for your donor?

No doubt these are troubling times filled with anxiety and questions about the future of our fundraising programs. What will year-end bring? What will the recession do to my program? And what about the election, a “second wave”…

I encourage you to control your fears by getting in action.

Set aside 30 minutes at the start of your day to focus on these simple steps and by year-end, not only will you feel more in control of your program’s destiny but you’ll be achieving symbolic immortality by creating your legacy as one of the great fundraisers we’ve ever known!