In a bit of insight often attributed to both Hemingway and Banksy (but probably originating from neither artist), there’s an idea that we die three times – not once.

The first death occurs when you take your last breath. The second death happens when your funeral or celebration of life takes place. The third – and final – death doesn’t come until someone speaks your name for the last time.

As someone in life’s third act, I’m very aware of my desire to be remembered after I’m gone – especially by my daughter, granddaughter, and stepdaughters. I really do want my name to be spoken long after I’ve taken my last breath.

My mom died 22 years ago, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of her and talk about her. Doing this helps me feel her presence – and it makes her loss a little easier to live with.

So now, I’d like to give you a little exercise: Imagine you’re sitting in front of a birthday cake surrounded by friends and family. It’s your 95th birthday – and everyone is paying tribute to you. In that moment, what five words do you hope they would use to describe your legacy?

I encourage you to take a minute or two and actually write your five words down somewhere and keep it.

Got your 5 words? Good.

I’ve done this exercise myself – and I’ve asked participants in conference sessions and webinars I’ve given to do the same.

I’m not surprised that people rarely choose words that relate to material well-being, accomplishment, professional success, or physical beauty. Rather, they choose words that relate to their relationships, particularly to those who matter most to them.

I’ll share my five words with you:

  1. GENEROUS: I want to be remembered as someone who was always willing to share. Especially if I’m sharing with someone who is less advantaged than I am.
  2. OPEN-HEARTED: An important part of my life and my work has been to encourage others to be unafraid to open their hearts and show their own feelings and vulnerability. And yes, big boys DO cry!
  3. PLAYFUL: I really hope that people will remember that I caused them to laugh and smile. I’m a firm believer that laughter is good for the soul.
  4. AUTHENTIC: I hope that people feel that I’m honest, open and genuinely interested their lives.
  5. LOVING: John Lennon was right: All You Need Is Love. I want to be remembered as someone who loved well and was open to receiving love in return.

Applying the 5 words to legacy fundraising

Now, let’s connect all this to legacy fundraising. I fundamentally believe that when you’re communicating about gifts in wills with donors and prospects, you should guide your conversation toward the idea of how one would like to be remembered. Once someone has shared their remembrance wishes to you, it’s a simple exercise to connect that wish to a legacy gift.

In fact, let’s use my 5 words of legacy as an example. If I were considering making a bequest to your organization, you’d be more persuasive if you connected the idea of that gift to a word on my list. It would be pretty easy to describe my legacy gift as expressions of my generosity, open-heartedness, thoughtfulness, and love (and it would be difficult I think to connect a charitable bequest to playfulness, but maybe you have a bigger imagination than I do).

Next time you have the opportunity – either in conversation or in creating a marketing message – try using some adjectives of your own. I’m pretty sure that if you do, you’ll be more successful at moving that prospect to a bequest. Good luck!