How to Increase Bequest Gifts to Your Organization

U.S. NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS received over $23 billion in bequest gifts in 2012, according to Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2012. What makes this significant source of funding even more noteworthy is that less than 5 percent of all decedents over the age of 55 in 2012 made charitable bequests. Therefore, over 95 percent of your donors over age 55 will benefit from your assistance in helping them to complete their charitable estate plans. In addition, the 5 percent of your donors who currently do have an estate plan can easily include a gift to your organization by simply amending their current plan.

This article provides your organization’s development team members with three action steps to help them close more bequest gifts. These steps can be helpful even if your organization does not have a formal planned giving program; they can be integrated into your daily routine even if your primary focus is on current gifts. This article also provides helpful advice development teams members can give to their donors to facilitate the estate planning process.

1. Identify Two or Three Supportive Estate Planning Lawyers in Your Community to Whom You Can Refer Your Donors

Bequest gifts can be made either through a will or living trust, or by beneficiary designation. To have a bequest gift written into a will or living trust, it is best to have the documents prepared by a lawyer. Unfortunately, many donors don’t have a will or living trust because they don’t know an estate planning lawyer who can help them. Therefore, the first step to increase your bequest gifts is to locate two or three estate planning lawyers in your community who are supportive of your organization’s mission. If you provide your donors with the names of two or three friendly estate planning lawyers, you have not only provided a valuable service for your donor, but have also minimized the possibility that a potential bequest gift gets derailed by an antagonistic lawyer.

Unfortunately, finding conservative estate planning lawyers in your community may be easier said than done. Indeed, one of the most common questions fundraisers ask me is how to find estate planning lawyers in their communities. This task may not be an easy one, but, by using the following tools, you should be able to locate at least two or three such lawyers.

Ask People Who Know You. The easiest way to find helpful lawyers is to ask those who are already familiar with you and your organization. People who may be able to make lawyer referrals include your current and former Board members and your accountant. You could also seek lawyer referrals from your existing donors and your colleagues at other conservative organizations in your area.

Search Online Directories. A second tool to find conservative estate planning lawyers is to search online lawyer directories. One helpful online directory is provided by the Christian Legal Society. The web address is To search this directory, click on the “Resources” tab on the home page. Next, click on the “Find a Lawyer” sub tab to open the “Referral Directory.” Enter your state, and the practice area “Wills/Trusts/Estates/Probate.” The result is a list of lawyers’ names, cities and contact information. These are lawyers who identify themselves as Christian and whose practice areas include estate planning. This is an initial list of potential conservative estate planning lawyers in your area. is a second useful online directory. To access this directory, click on “I Want to: Find a Lawyer or Law Firm,” on the home page. A screen will open that can be used to search for estate planning lawyers. To select a practice area, choose both “Trusts and Estates (all)” and “Wills (all).” The only other item to fill in is your state. The directory will then list estate planning lawyers in your state. This list can be further narrowed by county and city. This refinement will provide a list of lawyers in your community who do estate planning. One additional useful refinement in locating supportive lawyers is to enter the name of a conservative law school in addition to your state and the practice areas. For example, I graduated from Regent University Law School, and when I add to my search Regent Law alums, I discover estate planning lawyers throughout the country who probably share my conservative values.

Visit the Lawyers. Once you identify potential lawyers, it is important to meet them before referring any donors to them. When I was a planned giving officer, I consistently tried to contact new prospective lawyers in the cities within my region. I would tell them that I was looking for estate planning lawyers in their community to whom I could refer my organization’s donors who need wills or living trusts. I would also request a 10-minute meeting to introduce myself and my organization. These brief meetings were beneficial. They solidified good relationships with helpful lawyers and also prompted me to remove others from my list of referral lawyers for a variety of reasons.

2. Share Simple Bequest Ideas with Your Current Donors

Once you have at least two estate planning lawyers to whom you can refer your donors, the second step is to research your current donors to identify those over 55. These are your best prospects with whom to engage in conversations about leaving a legacy with your organization.

Start with the Basics. The purpose of the legacy conversation is to inform your bequest gift prospects about how to include your organization in their estate plans. This task can be done either through individual appointments with your donors, or by inviting them to an estate planning seminar. There are several benefits of estate planning seminars for interested donors. One is that it is a great way to deepen their understanding of what you do. It may also be an opportunity for donors to meet an estate planning lawyer if you have one present at the seminar.

If a donor already has an estate plan, help him or her add a codicil (to a will) or an amendment (to a living trust) that includes a bequest gift to your organization. If the donor does not have a will or living trust, help him or her get a new will or a living trust that includes a bequest gift.

Bequest gifts can also be made via beneficiary designations. These include gifts of life insurance, IRAs, and investment accounts using Transfer on Death instructions. A beneficiary designation gift is much simpler to implement than drafting a new will or living trust, since your donor does not need a lawyer to name your organization as a beneficiary. Therefore, when discussing simple bequest ideas, be sure to mention gifts via beneficiary designation.

One way to help your donors get a good start is to give them a simple questionnaire that helps them start to think about their plans for their will or trust.

3. Stay Engaged in the Process

The third step to increase bequest gifts to your organization is to stay engaged in the process. This is important because it is easy for the estate planning process to get derailed. One way to help your donors get a good start is to give them a simple questionnaire that helps them start to think about their plans for their will or trust. The donor also gets to see the broad subject matter that will be discussed in the initial estate planning interview with the lawyer. This can help the donor feel more comfortable in the first meeting.

Obviously, there can be no bequest gift unless the wills and/or trusts are signed. Therefore, it is important to stay in touch with your donors who begin the process. Gentle questions to your donors concerning how their estate planning process is proceeding can be helpful in encouraging them to finish what they started.


Bequest gifts are a major untapped source of funds for many organizations. The first step to secure more of these gifts is networking with local estate planning lawyers to help your donors with the process. The second step is to spend time with the right donors sharing simple bequest ideas with them. Lastly, the third step is not only to help them get started in the process, but also to be a resource to help them complete it. Actually, there is a fourth step. Be sure you complete your own will or living trust that includes a bequest gift to your own organization!

Questions That Can Jump-Start a Conversation about Estate Planning

What is it about our nonprofit that motivates you to support us?

What do you see as some of the long-term challenges that we face here at (insert charity’s name)?

What role do you see (insert charity’s name) playing in addressing these challenges?

Given your long-time and faithful support of (insert charity’s name), would you be willing to remember us in your estate plan?

Mr. James is a private practice estate planning lawyer in Lancaster, Pa. He has been involved in planned giving for almost 30 years and is a member of The Heritage Foundation’s Legacy Society. He can be contacted at