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Exploding bequest myths

publication date: May 14, 2019
author/source: Lynne Boardman with David Kravinchuk

“I, John Bonde of Norwich, leave for bread and herrings to be distributed to the poor, 4 marks ….” (Norwich, England, 1248)

We know that compassionate people have left gifts in their Wills to help others for ages. These days, in the UK, legacies account for a full quarter of the total amount given to charities each year .

But there is still a great deal of mystery and mythology around this fantastic way to inspire and enable donors to give. This holds so many fundraisers back from raising significant funds from their donors – gifts that they would gladly give.

So join us in this series while we explode some myths around asking donors to leave you a gift in their Will. And at the same time give you simple, tangible steps you can take – today – to inspire your own donors to make a Will.

Why does this matter?

You already know this. But there might be people you need to convince. So, in brief:

- The majority of direct mail donors in Canada have a Will and a large proportion of them have already made a charitable bequest.

- But the vast majority of Canadians still have not been asked to leave a gift in their Will to charity.

- Our best groups of donors (“Matures” and “Boomers”) will be passing on.

- If you haven’t secured bequests from them, this will cause a massive decrease in your income. They’re currently the backbone of your annual program.

- And if you aren’t asking them to leave you a legacy right now, be sure that other charities are.

Myth Explosion #1

Ever heard an opinion like this?:

“Our members would be offended if we talk to them about their Wills.”

But if you talk to your donors themselves – and between us we’ve surveyed and spoken to thousands – we bet you’ll learn four important things: first, they’re interested. Second, the notion is hardly new. Third, they’ve very likely already left a bequest to another charity they support. And fourth: the reason they haven’t left one to you, is that you simply haven’t asked them yet. Not well, anyway. Perhaps not enough. In any case, you weren’t front of mind when they made their Will. And you weren’t front of mind when they updated it.

Lynne constructed a fundraising program for a large American non profit recently, who were absolutely sure that their members would hate the whole idea. After months of (respectful) persuasion, we were finally allowed to survey them with a key legacy question or two.

Overnight, there was a 35% response to the survey. More than 30% of those respondents said they’d be interested in leaving a gift to the Association in their Will. And numerous of them added in the comment “I already support other charities in this way – I didn’t know you’d be interested in this type of giving!”

Top tip: talk to your donors about leaving a bequest. Your best prospects are not out there in the wide world somewhere. They are right in your database.

Great ways to do this: surveys in your direct mail appeals, email surveys to those donors you have email addresses for, interviews by phone, requests for advice.

Myth Explosion #2

How about this one?:

“Our donors aren’t rich enough to leave a gift in their Will. That’s for wealthy people.”


Our clients have raised millions and millions of dollars from donors who would never reach the radar of a major gift or mid-level giving fundraiser, based on the size of their donations. They’re almost all sub-$250 donors.

There are probably two main reasons for this. The first is property prices. Across Canada they’ve skyrocketed over the last 25 years – which means that even donors who are cash-restricted (and hence make modest donations) may own on a modest house worth a great deal of money. The second reason is this: none of us really knows what’s going on in another family’s finances. Some families hide their debt. Others hide their fortunes. Assume nothing.

Instead, here are the people you are looking for. David calls them our “Aunt Mary’s.” Aunt Mary is:

- Civic generation (if you don’t have date of birth in your database, look for clues in the first name field);

- Female

- Direct Mail Donor

- Religious affiliation

- Modest income

- Modest education

More clues to find your best legacy prospects:

- SuperLoyals: people who give repeatedly. Maybe not every single year – but many gifts over the years. Doesn’t matter the size.

- Monthly donors … and lapsed monthly donors

- People who are connected with your organization in more than one way. Think “donor + volunteer.”

- Repeat tribute donors.

- We have never found wealth (or past donation size) to be an indicator of the willingness to leave a bequest.

These targeting tools are important when you need to decide on specific groups of donors to speak to about legacies. Maybe when you have to decide who to do personal follow-ups with. Or invite to a donor reception. But, really, we need to talk to all donors about legacies. Because even one makes a huge difference.

Myth explosion #3 – legacy programs are expensive to run

Nope again.

Many (many) moons ago Lynne worked for a wildlife organization. No budget for legacies. But in each and every newsletter – and the one and only annual appeal – they asked donors to remember the animals and the organization in their Will. That’s it. For the past 20 years this organization has been funded solely by bequests from those supporters.

The best legacy programs are “drip drip.” That means you need to keep the message about legacies in front of your donors as often as possible. You can’t possibly know when they are going to make their Will. Or amend one that they’ve already made. That’s triggered by life events like getting married, buying a house, having children, retiring, or losing a loved one. Your organization needs to be front of mind whenever that day comes for them.

But this doesn’t need to be pricey. There are many ways that you can speak to your supporters about legacies by piggybacking on things you’re already doing. Think:

- Tick box or buckslip (test it first!) in direct mail appeals

- Your website

- Supporter newsletters (each and every issue!)

- A P.S. on the thank you letter

It doesn’t matter that you have a perfect legacy marketing program, complete with bells and whistles. It does matter that you start today.

In our next installment, we’ll talk about how to talk to your donors about legacies. The questions and concerns they have, that you need to address. And we’ll give you tips on a fantastic tool to help you – the Bequest Inspiration Booklet!

Lynne Boardman has been in fundraising since the days when she really did keep donor data on recipe cards! Since then, much has changed, but more has remained the same. Like treating donors with love, appreciation and respect. She's a champion of all the Aunt Mary's and Grandma Julie's whose devotion and support is the cornerstone of the causes we hold dear.

As The Common Good Fundraising’s Philanthropy Firebrand, David Kravinchuk lives to empower donors of modest means to achieve their philanthropic dreams by building successful annual giving and legacy marketing programs for his clients. David also founded Western Canada Fundraising Conference, the multi-award-winning annual conference for fundraisers in western Canada.

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