Planned Giving Nuggets from Tom Ahern

Planned Giving Nuggets from Tom Ahern


21 February 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Recently I attended a webinar presented by Tom Ahern. Ahern is a well-known figure in nonprofit direct response fundraising and has written several books related to communicating with donors: Turning Doubters Into Donors, How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, and Making Money with Donor Newsletters, to name a few. All are “how to” books, and all are worth it.

The webinar I attended was on marketing your Planned Giving Program, and it’s one he regularly offers. Today is Elections Day in Wisconsin and I will be working most of the day at the polls as an elections inspector. So I’m punting the post over to Tom (without his permission) and the nuggets from his webinar.


But before I do, let me remind you that I am collecting information on how much money you raised from your new donors in 2018. If you would be willing to share your data, I would like this to become a much larger study. For more information about the Study, see last week’s post, Time to Update the 5-Year Value Metric.

Here’s what I will need from you, if you’re willing to participate:

  • Isolate the members and donors you have who made first gifts to your organization at some point – any point – during the calendar year
  • Now add up everything those donors have given to your organization – as a group – since then (1/1/2018 through 12/31/2022).
  • Send those two numbers to me – the number of donors and the total amount they have given. The email address is David (at) DevelopmentForConservation (dot) com.

Note that I do not reveal the names of the organizations when I report on the data.


The rest of this post is devoted to the nuggets from Tom Ahern’s How to Market Bequests webinar. The italicized segments are paraphrased from the webinar. The annotations are from me.


This is the core communications problem for planned giving:

“Do you love the land trust enough to consider a bequest gift?” Yes

“Have you done so?” No

“Why not?” It never occurred to me.

If you have a webpage on planned giving, great. But having a web page is not enough. The people going to the web page are people who are looking for planned giving information. Do you know what they are looking for? Is the information SUPER-easy to find? OK, great so far. But leaving your land trust in their will has already occurred to them.

What about everyone else?

You’re going to need something else. Something that helps the idea occur to them.


Ahern says it’s simple – persistent prompting.

Prompting Strategies:

  • Webpage
  • Webpage banners
  • PS Notes
  • Reverse side of response cards
  • Newsletter testimonials (social proof)
  • E-News features
  • Direct Response mail
  • Profile living people, not dead people
  • Pop-up ads
  • Social Media, and video
  • Member surveys


All fundraising copy should sound like someone talking. For example, “How does it work? It’s pretty simple, once you decide to save the world … or your local community forest.”

The lawyers won’t mind if you simplify your language. And your members and donors will appreciate it being easy to understand.


If you do nothing else, mail one letter annually. Offer people an opportunity to call someone specific in the office who can answer their questions and direct them to the website for free, downloadable information.

Huge clue there. Don’t simply offer information. Have something available people can download for free. A brochure, a declaration form, something they can print off and take with them to visit their attorney.

As a service to our members, we have created a free estate planning guide. This helpful guide may enable you to successfully plan your will or trust and be better prepared and informed before meeting with an attorney. Would you like to receive a free copy?”

  • Yes, email me a free copy
  • Yes, mail me a printed brochure
  • Not interested at this time


The typical profile of a legacy donor (from Bluefrog) is:

Aged 77 when she writes her last Will
Dies when she is 89
Leaves three charitable bequests in her Will


Think about that: Many donors are still making changes to their wills even within the last five to ten years before they pass. This has an enormous implication because many people withdraw from annual giving about the same time. If there are people who have been loyal donors for ten years or more, and they are in their early to mid 70s, be careful if you stop sending them information – including appeal letters and newsletters – even if they stop giving entirely.


Bequest giving is major giving for regular people. You don’t have to be rich to make a big difference. I love my daughter. I also love trees.

For many people a bequest gift is the first gift they make from their wealth.

In fact, many wealthy people don’t leave large amounts to charity. The $25 annual donor is just as likely to leave you her $500,000 estate as the major gift prospect you’ve been spending all your time with.


Testimonials provide social proof.

Proof that other people are making this same choice – to leave part of their estate to the land trust. This knowledge makes it easier for me to make the same choice.


Leaving a legacy isn’t about leaving something behind. It’s about leaving something ahead … something that says, “I was here. I cared. Did what I could. This is one ever-lasting thing I want to contribute.”

The last gift people give you is NOT their “bequest.” It is to tell you the kind of person they were. Where they lived. What they cared about. Do the work to understand their passions.

“Leave a legacy” is about perpetuating my values and my beliefs and my primal desire to matter. Don’t thank me for what I give. Thank me for who I am.


Too Right.

And here’s something else that’s easy. Changing one’s will can be a lengthy and complicated process. But naming the land trust as the beneficiary of your retirement plan or life insurance policy is an on-line ten-minute task. Help this idea occur to your members and donors.


Thank you, Tom!



Cheers, and have a great week!



PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Willfried Wende, courtesy


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1 Comment
  • Ashley UpChurch
    Posted at 11:24h, 21 February

    Thanks for sharing this, David. I found it very thought provoking and immediately emailed our team with three actionable items and am excited to start working on a more robust planned giving program in the near future!