One Small Idea That Could Make A Big Difference in Your Planned Giving Program

One Small Idea That Could Make A Big Difference in Your Planned Giving Program

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has about 6,000 members who gave money last year. If they add people who gave money in 2014 and 2013 (but not in 2015), the total list numbers about double that – call it 12,000. Each year, INHF mails to this larger group with a nice, short letter and a Planned Giving brochure. And each year, they get a couple of dozen responses from people asking for more information. INHF’s Planned Giving Director spends the next year or so following up on these “leads,” helping members figure how to use current estate law to benefit the Foundation while maximizing their own tax position.

This is a spot on, tasteful, and effective marketing program. With several hundred donors already in the pipeline, and talented staff keeping track of their cultivation, this is a program that will bear fruit for years to come.

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For most land trust organizations, I don’t recommend big assertive planned giving programs. It can get too complicated too quickly, and 8/10 planned gifts are either bequests or beneficiary designations. It’s quite easy to market such gifts passively. Also, the management of any of the more complicated planned giving vehicles can become a significant distraction from annual giving and major gift work.

For most organizations then, I recommend using a much simpler approach:

If you have included [insert name of land trust] in your will, please let us know so that we may thank you during your lifetime.

Print this innocuous statement everywhere. Include it in your thank you letters, on the backs of appeal response cards, in every issue of the magazine, and on your website.

For those who respond and let you know, recognize them periodically as members of a named “Legacy” group. (“Some gifts last a lifetime, some last even longer.”) Let each donor tell their story in the newsletter, perhaps even collecting several stories as a special insert into one newsletter each year. This isn’t always possible, of course, but it’s always compelling and could easily encourage others to make similar commitments.

Here are several other ideas:

  • Host a special event or hike exclusively for Legacy members. Selectively invite them to attend Giving Club events as well.
  • Create a special way to designate Legacy members at other events, for example preparing nametags with a colored border. Like a secret handshake, this allows staff and board directors one more clue when interacting with them.
  • Avoid the temptation to encourage donors to designate their gifts for “endowment.” Doing so is unnecessary, because being able to designate is not a decision driver for making the gift. Those who prefer to restrict their gift will do so. Most will not and the net effect would then be to convert unrestricted gifts into restricted gifts – never a preferred idea. Instead, rely on a board policy stipulating that all estate gifts will be used for endowment unless otherwise designated by the donor. This policy can be explained verbally to those who ask how the money will be used – most won’t.
  • Share “news as it happens” with this group just as you would with any other major gift prospect – preferably coming from a board member. You might even designate one of the Development Committee members as a special liaison for just this purpose.

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Back to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation: It strikes me that among the reasons the PG mailing works for INHF is: a) that they do it every year, and b) they have access to a large-ish list of prospects to mail to.

Why couldn’t several smaller land trusts combine lists for a similar effort? I recently learned of one such project in New York State in which multiple land trusts collaborated to screen their mailing lists. The screen was used to identify likely planned giving prospects based on age, income level, and several other factors. The combined effort made it possible to achieve economies of scale beyond that which any one of them could achieve alone.

Stay tuned on this story – I will have some updates on their experience to share.

In the meantime, if you or someone you know might be interested in such an effort, let me know. With enough interest, we might be able to put something like that together somewhere else.




Photo Credit: Sunrise courtesy of Walt Kaesler.


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Last week, I did my workshop on Writing Irresistible Appeal Letters at the New York State Land Conservation Summit. I had several examples of appeal letters I had collected that could be improved, but the participants appropriately got on me for not sharing a “done right” letter – perhaps even one I had written. So for those of you I met in New York, and for anyone else who wants to see one of my letters, here are links to two samples:

Aldo Leopold Nature Center Appeal Letter

Ice Age Trail Appeal Letter

If you have a letter that did particularly well and that you would be willing to share, I’d love to post other examples on this website.


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Will I see you at a conference this spring? In May, I’m heading to the state (PALTA) conference in Pennsylvania. I’m also planning to attend the River Rally in Mobile, Alabama.

Will I see you there?


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Fundraiser’s Almanac
Here’s what I’m thinking about for May. What are YOU thinking about?


Second Spring Appeal Letters: I want my donors to give to the organization twice each year, once to renew their membership, and once in response to an “appeal letter.” Because most donors renew their membership in the fall months, and because I don’t want them to receive the two requests right on top of one another, the Spring Appeal is important. The first letter should have gone out in April, but there’s still time to get a second, “reminder” letter out as long as it is mailed before Memorial Day.

Taking Stock After April:

Assume that you are not there a year from now – not anywhere around, in fact. Write your replacement a letter explaining where you are after four months this year. Talk about what your priorities were and how they may have changed over time. Be analytical and reflective, but most of all, be candid.

If you followed my advice last year, you will have a file somewhere in your computer containing your reflections on the first four months of last year. Use it as a baseline to make the same evaluation this year. If you did not, do it now for next year!


Donor Events: In May, I’m already thinking about my donor events in the Fall. WHY? – because it takes that long to do it well.


Securing Prospecting Mail Lists: It’s not too early to think about fall mailings to recruit new members. Getting the lists together is a big part of that. Certainly recreate my “house list” of lapsed and former members and donors, program and field trip participants, and volunteers. But also begin trading or buying other lists. I don’t know of any land trust organization with more than 1,500-2,000 members that does not depend on a significant direct mail program and budget. Those that have curbed it to save money (or in consideration of using less paper; or in favor of email, social media, or crowd funding) have lost.

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1 Comment
  • Anita O'Gara
    Posted at 09:51h, 10 May

    This is Anita at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, with an even simpler step we took to encourage estate gifts even before we began doing planned gift mailings.

    We simply added two boxes to the bottom of our membership renewal reply form:
    “I have included INHF in my will.”
    “Please send me information on how to include INHF and my other favorite charities in my will.”

    For many years, these questions have been part of our annual renewal, and they are still the cornerstone of our program. More people respond these questions than to the mailing.

    Best wishes to all!