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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Legacy giving: the greatest privilege a fundraiser will have.

By Kimberley Mackenzie

When my mother in law was dying I asked my friend, who is a minister, what I could do. I felt so helpless. Kirsty told me that when people are near death they really just want to talk and need someone to listen.

My mother in law took her last breath in a room that was full of laughter. She was finally at peace. I now know that death, while sad, can be as natural and as beautiful as the loud and painful birth of a child, it’s the circle of life.

What does this deeply personal experience have to do with fundraising? A lot...

This past week a man came into our office for an appointment he had arranged before Christmas. We had talked in December about his will and the potential of including our charity as one of his top three beneficiaries.

Dear reader, you don’t need to know any more about that visit with ‘Mr Jones’ other than to know that I am speaking from experience and not theory. I was deeply honoured to be a part of such important decision.

I am a generalist fundraiser and by no means consider myself an expert in any given area. But, there are some things I have learned through working with legators (people who have bequeathed a legacy) that I want to share with you.

Make the time

Nothing that you have to do that day will be more important than talking to your donor about his or her final wishes in life. Nothing – even if the meeting that was scheduled for an hour turns into three. Gently move it forward to make sure the business objectives are accomplished and be available to listen to your donor talk about her life, her dreams, her regrets and final wishes. Legacy gifts are not about you or your charity. Legacy gifts are 100 per cent donor-centred. Always make the time.

Be sure you can keep your promise

Sometimes donors suggest something very specific like a place they visited or a play they saw. Try to understand their motivations by asking open-ended questions such as:

‘It sounds like you love visiting the XYZ exhibit in the museum. Can you tell me more about that?’

Actively listen and turn off the ‘yes but...’ thoughts swimming around in your head. Be truly curious. Once you understand the true motivations of the suggestion you will be in a much better position to meet a desire to be affiliated with a certain feeling or place or programme. You can then offer a less restrictive solution.

For example, perhaps you work for a theatre company and your donor fell in love with a contemporary new play. What the donor might say is ‘I love the David Mamet plays your company produces and I want to leave a legacy toward that’. Through active listening we can get to the underlying motivation. It isn’t realistic for a bequest to be directed toward producing David Mamet plays every year ­­– in perpetuity. Perhaps the legacy your donor is striving for is an endowment to ensure that your theatre company always has the funding to try new, leading edge and risky productions.

You can get to this place through actively listening to your donor.

Be truly honest

If you don’t think that your charity is the right one or that perhaps the donor has your charity mixed up with another make sure you clarify it immediately. I have had a few donors talk to me and use the name of another charity and it is always a little risky to make sure they called the right place. No one wants a bequest that was intended for someone else.

Be respectful

It may seem like I’m pointing out the obvious but I’m going to do it anyway. Your legator is very likely to be much closer to and have more experience of the cause than you. Organising their affairs may be slightly overwhelming due to frequent conversations with financial advisors and lawyers, as well as balancing family needs and obligations. With some people, their thoughts may wander or their bodies may be frail. Respect their experience and wisdom. I believe our job is to help make the process of finalising an estate as simple as possible.

Through empathy and understanding of their love for our cause, we can offer peace of mind that no financial advisor or lawyer can.

Know your job

Remind your donors several times that you recommend they discuss their plans with their financial advisor and their family. Then explain why. It is very important that everyone understands that your charity is in the will because the donor wanted it there. Not because you did something to entice, manipulate, or coerce. Harsh words I know. You might try saying something like:

‘Mrs Norman, It really has been a pleasure talking to you about your estate plans. We at xyz charity are very grateful for your decision to include us in your will. Please remember to discuss your plans with your financial advisor (or executor or lawyer) and, if you are comfortable doing so, with your family. If we are all aware of your desires it will be easier to ensure that your wishes are granted.’

Discuss recognition

It can be very helpful to a charity to have details of how the legator would like to be acknowledged, even including the wording they would like placed on a bench or a plaque. Having these details in the will can ensure that in the future, when the donor is gone and you have moved on, your charity doesn’t have to guess what was promised. Your charity will be legally bound to carry out the donor’s wishes if it is written in the will. Just make sure that you negotiate something realistic and easy for your charity to implement.

In summary

In my ten years of fundraising, nothing has been as rewarding as my experience working on the planned giving programme. I know that I am better able to do this work for having had first-hand experience with the final stages of life. If you haven’t had the experience of taking the final steps of life with someone then I would suggest reading Tuesday’s with Morrie by Mitch Albom. It is an amazing story, which is not just on how to die but also on how to live. And that really is what legacy fundraising is all about – helping people live in peace, knowing that they have helped make a difference in the world, long after their lives will be over.

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