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Downes Murray International News

Should you consider a bequest promotion programme?

For cause-committed donors, leaving a bequest to their chosen NPOs is a way to continue their support  beyond their lifetimes, writes Marisol Gutierrez.

It’s highly unlikely that author Shannon L. Alder was thinking about the role of bequests in fundraising when she wrote: “Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” Yet, she may as well have been talking about charitable bequests, since these reflect passion, commitment and loyalty to a cause.

Leaving a bequest to a charity is the donor’s choice. It’s personal. And a supporter’s Will is none of our business, anyway. Or is it?

This is tricky territory... and it’s also the point at which we begin to bump into the elephant in the room: namely the subject of death. We’d rather avoid it, tip toe around it, circumvent it – anything but hold its gaze for more than a millisecond. No surprises there. After all, contemplating death, whether our own or someone else’s, makes us feel uncomfortable.

But are our sensitivities around the subject founded in fact? In reality, the older we get, the less intimidating the subject becomes. Maturity unmasks the things that truly matter to us. We adjust the lens through which we see the world; the picture gets bigger. We reflect on how we have lived, what remains to be done. We begin to consider how we’ll be remembered and what we’ll leave behind – not only in relation to our children but also, the world. If we’re strong supporters of a cause, and have a longstanding relationship with a particular charity, that connection evolves and deepens.

That enduring connection is the common ground between a non-profit and its most loyal supporters – it’s this caring, mutually respectful place in which bequest programmes are founded.

But before a non-profit considers venturing into this specialist area, two important prerequisites should be fulfilled: an ethical, proven programme structure is in place, and essential training of staff has been undertaken.

A paid bequest liaison officer who is part of the fundraising team is the best person to lead your bequest promotion programme. Ideally, this special soul will embody these traits:

  • Mature (i.e. someone who knows what a typewriter is);
  • A good listener with a caring nature;
  • Feels at ease with older people;
  • Honours confidentiality;
  • Knows where to find legal and tax advice;
  • Has a long-term view of the role; and
  • Possesses good administrative skills.

Bequest programmes often take three to four years to bear fruit; they’re by no means a quick fix for ailing revenue streams. For charities that have successfully implemented them, bequests generate significant revenue in the form of money, property, investments or valuable assets such as antiques and jewellery.

Donors quite often don’t think of including their favourite charities in their Wills – unless something triggers the idea. This is where a bequest promotion programme fulfils an invaluable role, since it’s structured to filter information about Wills in appropriate ways through donor-focused communications.

As the decision to leave money to a charity is often made later in life, from around the age of 70, one of the first steps is to start building a list of individual supporters who are 65 and older.

The ‘promotion’ aspect of the programme begins with developing suitable literature on the subject of Wills, including legalities. Factual, up-to-date information is critical. Well-trained bequest liaison officers should understand the subject matter and be comfortable discussing it. They’ll also be able to relate to and respectfully interact with senior supporters.

Once the foundations of a programme have been built, the next step is to launch a ‘bequest society’ and extend invitations exclusively to those supporters who have made confirmed bequests. This initiative enables the charity to express its gratitude to these donors through exclusive events, special communications and other nurturing activities.

A bequest society will typically offer its members recognition and give them the opportunity to engage with peers who share the same passion for and commitment to the organisation.

Regular, intimate functions that nurture personal ties are at the heart of successful bequest societies. Interesting speakers are invited to these functions; members enjoy easier access to organisational leadership and they receive tailor-made communication.

Importantly, these special people are not neglected outside of their event attendance. Bequest officers take the time to maintain these key relationships by keeping in touch by phone, email and personal visits.      

The aims of a bequest promotion progamme:
  • To identify those most likely to make a bequest.
  • To educate the constituency about the necessity of making a Will.
  • To make people aware of the possibility and advantages of a bequest.
  • To establish and maintain rapport with these prospects.

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