Jewish Nonprofits Need to Reach Out for Legacy Gifts

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Nonprofit executives and donors frequently hear – and intellectually understand – the words “bequest” and “legacy,” but all-too-often the Jewish community seems to find itself lagging in establishing these critical campaign components as priorities.

As reported by Giving USA, Americans donated $298 billion worth of charitable gifts last year, with about 8% of that total received in the form of testamentary gifts. Putting this in perspective, this represented $24.4 billion in legacy gifts, an amount significantly larger than charitable support received from America’s corporate and business community!

Legacy giving expresses a donor’s personal values by integrating charitable, family, and financial goals as well as his/her vision for the future. It is a form of Tzedakah, a generous act that makes a difference not only in one’s life, but in the lives of others, creating permanence and positively impacting upon the lives of future generations who will experience its benefits and know its source.

There are myriad reasons that compel Jewish (and other) individuals to make legacy gifts. Common reasons cited by legacy donors include:

  • Sustains organizations they care about;
  • Provides an opportunity to memorialize themselves or a loved one;
  • Provides permanent recognition for themselves and their family;
  • Expresses appreciation to a charity that served them or their family;
  • Meets a need of the community; and
  • Reflects their religious or cultural values.

While the reasons for legacy giving differ, nonprofits would be smart to focus on how giving to an organization can be a very important and meaningful reflection of a donor’s values. Therefore, cultivating all forms of philanthropy is a powerful way to sustain and strengthen an organization’s capabilities to fortify and pursue its mission for the long- term.

In commenting on the approach that nonprofits must take in creating and implementing their planned giving program, Benjamin Ginsberg, attorney and EHL Consulting’s planned giving expert, notes that there are additional reasons for donors to consider planned gifts, including tax incentives and income, and that most nonprofit outreach should emphasize these incentives. These incentives frame the planned giving strategies of nonprofits and must be part of the marketing and communication with prospective donors and “investors.”

Joseph C. Imberman, associate vice president for planned giving and endowments at Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), provides an additional perspective on how Jewish organizations can begin to consider, and execute, a planned giving component within their overall fundraising strategies. The JFNA’s legacy giving program, Create a Jewish Legacy, has flourished since its inception in the early 2000’s.

“We have seen amazing success, and the Create a Jewish Legacy program has become a national model. We believe that up to 50 communities are using the model in some form and that their total commitments aggregate approximately $560 million,” says Imberman.

Originated at San Diego’s Jewish Community Foundation, the Create a Jewish Legacy program provides a mix of online resources, as well as sample planned giving presentations and marketing materials that make it easy for a Jewish organization to understand and implement a legacy giving program. Over the last six years, JFNA has helped to spread the model nationally with consulting, training, challenge grants, and marketing resources.

The resources that JFNA has put together help to dispel some common rumors about the notion of planned giving. The discrepancy between individuals who donate to charities throughout the course of their lives and those who allocate substantial gifts to organizations upon their passing is the result of the all too common misconception that one has to be elderly and wealthy to engage in planned giving. In reality, anyone at any age or socioeconomic status can create a vehicle for long term support as well as make a bequest to organizations they admire.

Unfortunately, these misconceptions pose a challenge to the messaging and commitment on the part of Jewish organizations, ranging from synagogues to social service, arts, and educational agencies. In our decades of guiding all types of nonprofits, we see that people are often unaware or may not recognize the imperative for planned giving, perhaps because we, in the Jewish community, may largely tend to view giving only in the present. The belief that today’s challenges are the top priority among many circles in the Jewish community often results in the future-thinking concepts being discarded immediately … but both are necessary for sustainable operations!

Yet, a brief investigation of some of America’s leading nonprofits in the broader community demonstrates that sophisticated nonprofits are becoming more forward thinking, considering both dollars for today and dollars for tomorrow. For example, both the American Red Cross and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are well aware of the significance of planned giving, and with three and two clicks on their websites, respectively, one lands on their planned giving pages.

Unfortunately, this approach is not the case for many Jewish organizations! In preparing for this article, we visited websites for several dozen Jewish organizations and became frustrated because we were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine where the planned giving section was located … if it even existed at all.

Jewish organizations, like all nonprofits, must be proactive about legacy giving. They should invite the involvement of lay leaders whose professional experience coupled with their passion for Jewish causes can effectively spark this process. Furthermore, Jewish organizations should denote a clear section of their website to legacy giving, with contact information for the chief executive, director of development, or the planned giving expert.

Our review of Jewish organizations that do have a planned giving option reflects that their marketing and legacy society names often utilize traditional labels that incorporate some form of the number eighteen for chai, or might be named after a prominent spiritual leader, beloved lay leader, or even the founder of the agency. These titles, although referring to charitable bequests and endowments, fail to make a personal connection between the mission of the organization and the passion of the philanthropic individual.

We must ensure that the names we give to our legacy societies connect with the shared vision around our organizations and instill a sense of passion and commitment to those we engage. Only when we pay close attention to the connection sustained between legacy donors and organizations that plan for, and respect, these types of long-term gifts will the idea of legacy giving become more prominent, as the reasons behind its presence grow stronger and more personable.

In the months ahead, we welcome real-time comments about the impact your nonprofit has received as a result of a formal planned giving outreach effort; concurrently we want to hear from donors who have embraced planned giving and have influenced others to follow their example.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in suburban Philadelphia. They are frequent contributors to The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit business practices and strategies. Learn more at

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