Ask an Expert: Should Fundraisers Talk About Planned Giving During the Crisis?

Planned gifts are a way for donors to leave meaningful contributions to the charities they care about after they die. Even in the best of times, broaching the topic requires sensitivity and tact.

Several readers have written to us asking advice about whether planned giving is something fundraisers should bring up now, at a time when many people are frightened and thinking about their mortality in a way they haven’t before. Gary Pforzheimer, president of PG Calc, a planned-giving services company, tackled the topic in an interview with the Chronicle.

Send us your questions about fundraising, management challenges, and more, and we’ll track down the right experts to answer them in a future Ask the Expert column. Submit your questions to askanexpert@philanthropy.com, and we’ll publish a couple each week. Let us know if you’d like to remain anonymous.

What should charities do about their planned-giving programs?

Stay the course but trim the sails. Some are paralyzed with fear at every cough, sniffle, or sneeze. Retirement savings have been decimated. Even the very wealthy feel "not as rich" as they were just months ago. 

During times of uncertainty and fear, deferred giving acknowledges short-term concerns and provides an avenue for continued engagement. Simultaneously, a planned gift satisfies the longing to leave a mark on society and to be remembered. 

Has there been an increase in people looking at their wills?

Anecdotally many people are updating their estate plans. Academic research from Dr. Russell James and others demonstrates that life events drive estate-planning behavior. In ordinary times, these events are things like the death of a spouse or moving to retirement living. In the case of the pandemic, death has become real for many people. It stands to reason many will examine their long-term plans.

Does that mean this is a great time for planned giving done appropriately?

There is an opportunity for a happy confluence of estate-planning behavior and consideration of one’s legacy. It isn’t "a great time" for planned giving; it is rather a window of opportunity for those who want to leave their mark on your organization. 

Consider what is appropriate given the pandemic and economic circumstances. If you mention them at all, err on the side of soft, oblique references to health conditions and death.

Should charities continue sending mailings for legacy giving programs, and, if so, how can they make sure the language is nuanced and sensitive?

It is in times of crisis that donors need us the most. They are looking for leadership, humanity, and empathy. The right marketing piece will reaffirm the relationship we have with donors.

If a charity is sending something canned, yes, stop. But otherwise, reach out with a positive, impactful marketing piece. A well-crafted letter, be it post or via email, is better than hiding when times are tough.

Your communications should acknowledge the existence of the pandemic, economic disruption, and a looming recession. If you ignore what is on everyone’s minds, donors will think you are out of touch with reality.

Life-income gifts, particularly gift annuities, are especially appealing in this environment. Charitable gift annuities offer a steady source of lifetime payments not subject to market fluctuations.

Donors may be hesitant to make current gifts. You may hear things like, "I wish I could do more." Respond to the effect of, "Can I tell you a way you can make a significant gift without giving up current assets?" Follow the donor’s lead in these discussions. 

In this moment of fear and uncertainty, does it make sense to press pause on legacy discussions with donors?

Stewardship opportunities abound. This is a good time to check in with your legacy society members. Ask about the donors, their families. Tell them how your organization is responding to the pandemic and economy, and ask if there is anything you can do to help your donors.

Follow the donor’s lead. Unless the donor brings it up, don’t raise the subject of giving. The donor may want to help with relief efforts both as volunteers and donors. Make similar check-in calls with prospects who have not yet committed to a planned gift.

What advice would you add? Comment below to share your ideas. If you have a question you want us to tackle in a future column, send an email to askanexpert@philanthropy.com .

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