The Best Tool in Your Legacy Giving Toolbox

September 10, 2018

My fellow Good Workers and I have been building legacy giving programs with Canadian and U.S. charities since 2003. Over those fifteen years, we’ve worked with more than a hundred organizations and communicated with about a million donors. We’ve written a gazillion words of letter, brochure, email, booklet and web copy.

As you can imagine, we’ve honed a pretty effective process for taking legacy campaigns from initial conception to final execution. We establish a theme and emotive tone, recommend the type of storyteller that will be most persuasive, draft a copy outline or table of contents to give the story a skeleton, write a first draft, then review client feedback and incorporate that feedback into the finished copy.

But, it’s only been in this past year that we’ve added a new step to our process. And I believe that it’s one of the most important steps we take with clients throughout the whole creative process. I want to share that step with you now, and do my best to persuade you to incorporate this step into your own legacy gift marketing program.

The first thing we like to do with a new legacy client is establish a list of Guiding Principles. This document will serve as the road map for our work going forward. Before telling you what these principles are, let me share one example of how legacy projects can go wrong:


We submit our first draft of new content for the planned giving section of the client’s website. It follows best practices in terms of using storytelling, emotion and the autobiographical brain to persuade the viewer to consider a legacy gift. When we get our feedback from the client, it includes “Our executive director wants to see all of the giving vehicles (like insurance, securities, charitable remainder trusts and gift annuities) on the legacy cover page.”

Now we know from research and from our own experience that listing complicated giving vehicles is not the best way to introduce the idea of legacy giving. But, the executive director is adamant. The American Heart Association does it this way. And if the big guys do it that way, he wants to as well.


So, we’ve come up with an approach that helps to prevent episodes like this from happening again. And that approach is the creation – and adoption! – of a Guiding Principles Document.

This simple, short document simply lists between 5 and 10 ‘rules’ we’ll stick to as we move forward. The idea here is that once we agree to these ‘rules’, they’re not up for debate later on. The other idea is that the client (let’s say that it’s the Legacy Program Officer) is responsible for vetting these principles by anyone in his or her organization who could later influence our work. That might include the Development Director, Executive Director, VP Finance and members of the fundraising committee of the board of directors.

The big, hairy idea is this: Once all of these people have signed off on our Guiding Principles document, they’re not allowed to veer us off course once we get the program underway. I can’t tell you how much time and money this simple step saves in the long run. Or how much frustration it will save you if you’re the person running the legacy program at your charity.

So what principles do we include in the list? It can vary, depending on the client, but here are a few that almost always make the list:

1) WE WILL STAY FOCUSED ON WILLS

The vast majority of all planned giving revenues in North America come from bequests. Good Works focus groups over the years consistently reveal that donors understand bequests. But they are confused by other planned giving vehicles. Knowing this, we’ll follow the money and make it as easy as possible for the legacy prospect to give.

2) WE WILL STAY FOCUSED ON ‘WHY’

Donors have told us repeatedly that they want charities to provide ‘inspiration to give’ – not an ‘instruction manual’. The vast majority of our legacy prospects are quite financially literate, and don’t need our help with their financial planning. Knowing that legacy gifts come from the autobiographical brain, we will offer our prospects the opportunity to make a noble and generous act that adds beautifully to the stories of their lives.

3) WE WILL TELL GREAT STORIES

We also know from neuropsychology that storytelling is (and always has been!) the most effective means of communicating. The testimonial story told in the first person by a bequest donor is the single most effective method to persuade legacy prospects to make bequests. Great storytelling is where Good Workers hang our hats.

I hope these few sample principles illustrate to you how adhering to a handful of simple but essential principles is so critical to a consistent, effective and persuasive legacy program. I encourage you to give some thought to where and how you can put some guiding principles in place in your fundraising efforts. I’m pretty sure that when you do put these principles in place, your job will be more productive, more successful and a lot more fun!

Good luck – and do let me know how it goes for you…

2 thoughts on “The Best Tool in Your Legacy Giving Toolbox

  1. Hey Fraser,
    You have nailed it once again on some simple principles. I’ve been a speaker twice at the National AFP Conference and my focus was on organizations utilizing volunteers to engage donors. It’s all about stories and impact, not the product as most workshops focus on.
    The key question we ask donors that are interested in a legacy gift in their will is, ” Who influenced or modeled a lifestyle of giving for you to be so generous?”
    Love your posts.

  2. Thank you !

    A succinct reminder worth placing on my monitor, mirror and anywhere else I must gaze upon regularly to remind me of the basic concept.

    It’s a bequest motivated by their wish to connect and recount their story – their life’s mission.

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Fraser Green

Fraser Green

Former political campaigner and current fundraising strategist with a knack for understanding how audiences will react to messages.