How to Transform a Declaration of Intent to a Documented Legacy Commitment

By Deborah K. Polivy, Ph.D.

A common dilemma for organizations that dedicate resources to building Legacy programs is how to ensure that those who have signed a document promising to leave a future gift actually do so. What can be done, at the very least, is to follow up with those who have made such a declaration and communicate with them in sundry and ongoing ways. But with limited resources and the pressure to raise annual or even outright endowment monies, how do we decide on whom to expend these energies? And just as interestingly, how do we guarantee that those people who take the steps to designate our organizations in their wills and trusts do not change their mind over time?

First a disclaimer. I have never been enthusiastic about programs that use resources to obtain documents promising a future gift. My personal experience with them has not been good.

When I began my career in Jewish Federation endowment development, I walked into an office where there was a filing cabinet filled with what were referred to at that time as “letters of intent” – written commitments to leave a gift to the Federation. My predecessor had spent a lot of time and energy obtaining these documents. Over the years, as the people who had signed these letters died, I noticed that we never received a legacy donation from any of the respective estates.

When I moved to other organizations, I did not make an effort to secure these declarations; my focus was on outright endowment contributions or those that would provide an income to the donor during their lifetimes. However, people often told me that they had designated my organization in their wills and I did create Legacy societies and recognized these individuals by including their names on a list of members. I was surprised when one man whom we honored this way at two different organizations in the same geographic area died and left nothing to either institution. I understand that these are anecdotes but they made a strong impression on me that while estate gifts are extraordinarily important, spending time on collecting promises to make these donations was not going to be a priority of mine.

However, I realize that Legacy programs have assumed prominent positions in our organizations. There are many who claim that these efforts focus on the importance of these future gifts and serve as stimuli as well as reminders to individuals to include them in their estate plans.

So how do we ensure that those people who have made these promises actually do translate the commitment into a documented gift and just as important not change their minds at a later date? There are several categories of people on whom we should concentrate our efforts and others whom we should just leave alone and hope for the best.

First, major donors are always our default priority and rightly so. It is somehow built into our fund development DNA to concentrate on these contributors no matter what the fund raising effort. However, even in this case, I think that the major donor has to be long term – one with a history of giving to the respective organization – to warrant our energies. A new major donor, and especially a young one, may not be committed for the long run.

This leads to my preference – all long term contributors, gift size notwithstanding. These people have supported our organizations for years and that behavior suggests a high probability of continuity of giving even at death were we to extend some effort on cultivating them. On the other hand, it is also in our fundraising DNA not to spend a lot of time and resources on low level donors – those at the bottom of the fund development pyramid. And thus it takes a concerted effort to pay attention to these particular individuals.

In terms of demographics, the people most likely to include our organizations in their wills and not subsequently make changes are older, long term donors and especially females. Several studies have indicated that women are more likely to leave bequests than men and to do so to social service and cause-related organizations. Of course individuals who have no children are also a high priority.

How do we encourage these individuals to commit to our organizations? First, we have to identify them. We have to look at our donor lists not only from top down but also from bottom up in relation to amount of time of contributing. I recommend 25 years or more of ongoing donations. While there may be some lapses from one year to the next, continuous giving is the significant factor and every organization can determine its own timeframe.

Giving societies are a great mechanism for focusing on these potential legacy donors and transforming their written promises into documented gifts. In this case contributors are acknowledged for continuity of giving – not size of gift – through special events and recognition lists. Plaques and other presents could be bestowed on this category of donor with marketing efforts that encourage maintaining giving forever through a bequest. Meetings must occur – both celebratory and informational – in groups as well as individually one on one. We never know what personal facts may be discovered and explored that might lead to an outright or income producing gift even in place of or along with a bequest. If an individual does not attend an event where these special donors are honored, then the delivery of a gift in person provides a wonderful opportunity for a face to face meeting.

I suggest that given limited resources little or no effort be expended on younger declaration signers unless they can be persuaded to make an outright endowment gift. This category of people is more likely than their elders to change their minds in relation to beneficiaries as they obtain experience with various nonprofit organizations throughout their lifetimes.

And then the question becomes, “how do we ensure that those people who actually include our organizations in their estate plans do not make changes over time?” Ongoing cultivation is necessary in the form of impersonal tools – newsletters, annual reports, recognition on Legacy society lists, special events to inform them of the organization’s efforts and programs, etc. Personal cultivation is also important. Thus, once we know that someone has included our organization in their estate plan, we cannot forget about them – no matter the size of the gift. We have to meet with them – maybe twice a year; personally invite them to events and if they are elderly, offer to accompany them; contact them by telephone to demonstrate ongoing interest in their health, family, travel or whatever. Personalization and ongoing attention to the relationship with the donor are the keys to success.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is a fund development consultant and the author of recently published The Donor Lifecycle Map: A Model for Fundraising Success (Charity Channel Press, 2017). She also wrote Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising, (Wiley, 2014). For more, visit: