The Catholic Fundraiser

Treating Donors Like Family: 9 Tips To Build and Maintain Your Planned Giving Donor Relationships

Posted by Nancy Jeffers on 6/29/17 8:41 AM

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I recently attended a gift planning conference in New York where I had the opportunity to be reminded of the impact Sharpe Group has had over its 54-year history.

The opening speaker at the conference has been a friend of ours for many years. When we greeted one another, he remarked that he’d recently been reminded of something he learned early in his career while attending a Sharpe Seminar. He said he had never forgotten the advice and it had always served him well.

What was that advice?

From the beginning, Sharpe associates have emphasized the importance of continuous stewardship of donors who have included charities in their estate and financial plans. While the industry has changed quite a bit, one thing has not. The only entities you find in a will are close family members, friends, or others that a person wishes to benefit for some reason. Charitable interests, on the other hand, are normally a small number.

We should never forget that when donors include a charity in their estate plan they are elevating that organization to the level of a family member. Further, keep in mind that these wonderful people have worked their entire lives to earn what makes up their estates, and it is a very special thing to be entrusted with a portion of those assets at the end of a donor’s life.  

We believe that remembering this is one of the bedrock principles on which to build a program that is designed to encourage estate gifts. Much of a development officer’s work flow will naturally fall into place after embracing this guiding principle of accepting donors as members of the family, impacting how and when to communicate and recognize them, deciding how much “documentation” to seek, and many other aspects of relationships with donors.

But what does it mean to treat your donors like family, and how do you do that?

It’s actually quite simple and requires, above all, that you listen to your donors. Your relationship with your planned gift donors often begins when they have indicated they plan to remember your charity in their estate plans.

This type of fundraising requires a different mindset than many other development activities. It often involves an older age group and sensitive discussions about how one wishes to leave a legacy.

It’s an honor that goes beyond a dollar amount.

Think of it this way. If your aunt tells you she included you in her will, do you say “thanks” and move on? Do you ask her for a copy of that will as proof? Or do you express your appreciation in multiple ways? Do you send her birthday cards and call her? Do you offer to help her when you’re needed?

Remember that bequests and many other estate gifts are revocable up until the time of death. Just because a donor indicates your organization is in their estate plans, it doesn’t mean they can’t take you out of those plans just as easily. In fact, many charitable estates include multiple organizations. If one of these organizations never acknowledges the expected gift or doesn’t maintain an ongoing relationship regardless of current giving activity, it is very understandable why a donor would remove that organization when they make their final will.

And when it comes to a donor’s will, the final one is the only one that matters.

Here are 9 tips we have learned over the years to help you build and maintain these relationships.

  1. Know as much about these donors as you can. Know their ages, educational background, special interests, and, most importantly, why they support your nonprofit. Keeping accurate, extensive, and up-to-date files on your donors will be helpful and serve those who may follow in your footsteps

  2. Listen to your donors. Pay attention to things that may have nothing to do with your nonprofit. Do they have special interests or other missions they support? A simple note including a clipping from a newspaper or magazine about one of these interests helps you build those communication channels and shows the donor you are paying attention.  Continue the family analogy, remember that their “charitable family” may include other “children” besides your organization and you should see those organizations as quasi-siblings in many respects. They are not to be feared, competed with, or ignored.

  3. Honor, celebrate, and include your planned giving donors in your communications, at events, etc.

  4. Communicate regularly with your donors. This is where knowing something about their special interests may be helpful. For example, as noted above, if you have learned that your donor volunteers for a horse rescue organization, send along news stories about horse rescue if you come across them. Ask about this work when you talk with them.

  5. Learn how they prefer to communicate. In our experience, we have seen that many estate gift donors are older — usually between 70 and 90. Donors from this population (especially those in their 80s or 90s) may be less likely to communicate digitally. If they have impaired vision, your communications may be best received if written in large, clear print. We have seen time and time again that these donors respond well to handwritten thank-you notes. Be aware that some have hearing issues that make phone communication less of an option and again make handwritten notes a good option.

  6. Report to your donors how their gifts will help further your mission.

  7. Treat planned giving donors not only as family members but also as major gift donors. We have found that the majority of estate gifts are, indeed, major gifts that are completed on the donor’s timetable rather than yours.

  8. Include visits and phone calls when appropriate. These visits should involve more thanking than asking. Imagine you are visiting with that aunt or uncle who has told you they are leaving you a substantial amount of money in their estate. That is essentially the role you are in and should guide your interactions.

  9. Help them understand their concerns and how they can make a gift that meets their own personal needs as well as the organization.

The Sharpe Group recently ran a feature in their Give & Take publication with advice from a major donor’s perspective, advice that mirrors what they tell nonprofit leaders. Read “Do Your Homework: One Donor’s Perspective on Fundraising Strategies That Work” in the May 2017 issue or online here.

Note: For more information on retaining online donors, check out our digital resource page!

Connect with other Catholic fundraising professionals and learn new techniques and practices in San Diego at our 49th Annual NCDC Conference.


Written by Nancy Jeffers

As Vice President and Managing Consultant, Nancy Jeffers has more than 35 years of experience assisting a variety of nonprofit organizations with donor communications strategies for their planned giving programs. She advises Sharpe clients with implementing their initial gift planning efforts after carefully assessing a client’s unique needs and coordinating the marketing strategies and communication tactics of well-established planned giving programs. Nancy has worked at a Catholic social services organization in Memphis and volunteers her time to several local nonprofit organizations, including dedicating many of her spare hours for more than five years to a local horse rescue organization.

About The Catholic Fundraiser

In this weekly blog we share tips, tactics and case studies for professionals in the Catholic fundraising community. Learn how to advance your mission with articles on technology, donor engagement, nonprofit leadership, social media, and emerging trends.

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