Wills and bequests

Encouraging people to leave your organisation money in their will can be a touchy, emotional and difficult fundraising subject. However, this can be a useful source of fundraising income.

When people make their wills, most feel moved (or at least obliged) to leave bequests to people who are related to them. They rarely think of the support groups, local neighbourhood house, cricket clubs or the local gallery where they spent so many productive, joy-filled days.

A small number of people may set aside a gift for one of the larger charitable causes. In fact, it can often appear that the larger organisations are the only ones that can (or do) receive bequests or endowments.

Many times the reason for this is that the bigger groups have a strategy in place to encourage people to consider their causes in their wills. But smaller groups can, relatively easily, get involved in a planned giving program as well - with four major provisos:


Not any old group can (or should) contemplate putting in place a planned giving program. You need significant skills and resources to do this in a respectful, effective way.


It’s important that your group is going to be around for the long-term, and not just fulfilling a short-term goal. You must be certain that your organisation is not going to disappear before any would-be benefactors die.

Strong support base

You need to have a loyal base of long-term supporters and/or donors. Bequests rarely come out of the blue – they usually come from people who have had a long-term or even lifetime association with a cause.


Your organisation must have a solid reputation. This comes through continuous achievement, transparency in financial dealings, and the ethical and responsible management of resources and raising money.

Attracting bequests might seem vulgar, but try thinking about it this way:

Your long-time donors and supporters are loyal because they believe that you make a difference to their lives and to the broader community.

They have demonstrated over time that they share your mission and think what you do is worthwhile.

In asking them to think about your organisation when making their wills, you are not wishing them an early death but giving them another opportunity to help create the kind of world they want to see, even after they have left it.

How to get started

Organisations considering putting in place a formal planned giving program should tread carefully. Death and money are both sensitive subjects and you’re going to be wading into both at once.

Make sure your group is ready - take your time and get support from the board and senior staff/volunteers before going down this path.

Think about what resources you might need, including any professionals you might need to ask for guidance.

Do your research – check out how other similar organisations handle their planned giving programs and make an honest assessment of what will work for your group.

Once you have the fundamentals in place:

Tell them what you do

People are unlikely to leave money to an organisation that they’ve had little contact with (or respect for) during their life. You need to attract supporters and you need to keep those supporters engaged in the work you’re doing.

Send regular emails (though not so frequently that people will be moved to unsubscribe), run positive stories in your newsletters, keep your website up to date, and invite your supporters to your events.

Tell them you value bequests

Even if they’re aware of your good work, few people will come to their own conclusion that they should leave some money to your organisation in their will. They need prompting.

You need to ensure that your supporters know that you welcome and value bequests. Your newsletters, websites and donor thank-you emails/letters are the perfect vehicles for spreading the word.

Tell them the difference their money could make

It’s important that you tell your supporters how a bequest can make a difference, not just to your organisation, but in creating the type of world they would like to see.

There are a number of ways you can do this, from the active (e.g. one-to-one conversations with people who may be interested in making a bequest) to the passive (e.g. running articles in your newsletter detailing how donations are being used, and providing examples of what a $1000 bequest could help you achieve).

Beyond the Basics

Planned giving is not something any not-for-profit organisation should do on a whim. It requires sensitivity, professionalism and a long-term view.

Organise a focus group

Bring together a group of current donors and board and staff members to talk through the feasibility of promoting planned giving.

Have a plan of action

Your plan should include a budget (including the costs of employing a consultant, if that’s what you decide to do), a summary of possible bequest prospects, and a timeline for expected revenue. Develop a business plan for what you'll do with the money if and when you get it.


Think about getting together with some other local community groups to hold a joint annual estate planning seminar. Discuss the importance of having a will, the probate process, what happens when someone dies without a will, and how to make a charitable gift in a will. Have a lawyer attend.

Meet, listen and understand.

If someone has so much faith in your group that they’re willing to consider leaving some money to it in their will then it’s only reasonable to spend some time meeting them in person, listening to their story and understanding where they are coming from and what they want to achieve through their gift.

Take time to carefully choose the person who is going to approach prospective donors. They need to have a range of personal qualities, including warmth, discretion, empathy, vision, diplomacy and sensitivity, as well as having some technical knowledge.

OUR TIP: Begin a visit with: "What do you want to get out of this meeting?" And then wait until they are done talking. Let the donor tell their story and the gift is half-made

Celebrate your supporters

Ensure you acknowledge (carefully – ask permission first) your existing supporters. By doing so you are not only recognising those who have supported you in the past, but encouraging others to do so in the future.

Think about how you can recognise those who leave your organisation money through their will – not only in the future (for example, the naming of a seat or a wing or building) but in the present (through invitations to functions and the like).

Back up your words

Make sure that what you say to prospective donors is backed up by what your group actually does with the money you receive.

This honours your promise to them, as well as showing prospective donors that you do the right thing.

Wills and bequests are not going to make a difference overnight; they are an investment in your group's future. Have patience and take time to get to know prospective donors.

Most importantly: be faithful to the donor's wishes when using the money they leave you – not only because you promised to, but to reassure other prospective donors that they can safely leave their dreams with you.

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