Legacy Challenges in the Time of COVID-19: What Should You Do?

Do you find yourself—or at the very least, your boss—questioning everything these days? 

As a general rule, humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. When things are uncertain or unknown it impacts our mindset. Times of great uncertainty typically fuel anxiety that can lead to aversion, analysis paralysis and indecision. (Early on in our “work from home,” Forbes shared an article on this phenomenon that’s worth a read.)

Today, I hope to give you a little clarity around some questions that have popped up more than a few times in the past month. Should you or should you not continue, or start, your Legacy Challenge?

First Off, You May Be Asking…What Is a Legacy Challenge?

If you’re not familiar with Legacy Challenges, feel free to check out our recent webinar on Implementing Your First or Second Legacy Challenge, with John Kendrick and Courtney Tsai of George Washington University.

The long and short of Legacy Challenges is that they are matching gift programs that focus on raising planned gifts. These programs are typically funded by a matching pool of unrestricted cash (either from a gracious benefactor or elsewhere) that is offered up as a match to inspire planned giving donors to document and disclose new planned gifts. 

The allure of a program like this is 1) It creates a sense of ‘urgency’ for planned giving donors to document and disclose their gifts now, as campaigns typically only last 12 months and 2) It allows a planned gift donor to provide impact today, as the cash match immediately goes to the organization…This is really important to remember for our conversation today!

Here’s a simple illustration from our good friends at GWU:


Understanding what Legacy Challenges entail, you may be wondering (as I know many of you are, given the numerous inquiries we’ve had) if today’s climate is appropriate for talking about Legacy Challenges. I’d argue yesif it’s positioned the right way.

Stelter Client Strategist Kit Lancaster recently shared some insights with our staff around the key benefits of Legacy Challenges. I’d like to share those today—along with some commentary for marketing during today’s sensitive times.

Benefit #1: Campaigns Add Urgency.

Campaigns are an effective way to engage donors and focus attention on a particular goal, often a new building (capital campaign) or a stronger endowment (endowment campaign). By setting specific goals and deadlines, fundraisers can create a compelling ask: They have urgency and a clear call to action. The organization’s mission may be why a donor gives, but the campaign can be the push to give now.

A Legacy Challenge can create that same urgency and focus for planned gifts: You make a clear ask (notify us of your gift now) with a clear deadline (either by a specific date or before matching funds run out).

In our current environment, we know that will planning and estate planning are at an all-time high. A Legacy Challenge can be an effective tool to give your donors a reason to let you know of their intentions as their plans are coming together. (With only 1 in 4 planned giving donors divulging their plans during their lifetime, a challenge presents them with a motivation to share their intentions with you now).

Benefit #2: What’s in It for Them.

In addition to creating urgency, a Legacy Challenge has a strong What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) offer: Unlock immediate funds and see the impact of your generosity today. Most planned givers will never see the tremendous impact their gift will have on the people/animals/environment they care about helping. With a match challenge, donors can make a gift that won’t affect their finances today and provide immediate support.


In our current environment, Legacy Challenges can provide an immediate impact on needs and programs today, which is really the principal reason to consider this approach. There may be many donors that want to help your organization right now, but due to the uncertainty of their health, wealth, etc., they may not be able to donate today. A challenge allows donors—that have already included you in their plans (but perhaps never notified you) or are putting you in their will today—to provide an immediate impact (i.e., for a Student Emergency Aid Fund) by simply disclosing their future intentions to you.

Benefit #3: Timing is everything.

A legacy challenge will perform best when development staff (including planned giving and donor relations teams) have time and capacity to focus on the campaign to ensure the proper level of follow-up and stewardship.

For organizations that have the capacity to support a legacy challenge now, powerful and timely messaging could frame the challenge as a way to respond to an immediate need or to help the organization be resilient for the future.

emailIn our current environment, as noted above, many people may be handling their planning and taking a ‘personal inventory’ on what’s most important to them; perhaps your organization is on that list. Philanthropically minded people are also looking for ways they can support their favorite charities today and challenges provide a solution. Finally, your development team has never been more accessible and available for follow-up and stewardship. Speaking with numerous colleagues on the CGP Board of Directors yesterday, many nonprofits are already eliminating travel for the foreseeable future—meaning your availability and opportunity to personally connect with donors have never been better.

Obviously, every nonprofit is being impacted differently by the pandemic and economic uncertainty (dependent on type, geography, financial ability). You must be prudent and make decisions with your organization’s (and donors’) best interest in mind.

However, if your organization is in the place to utilize a Legacy Challenge in your outreach, now may be a rare time to give those that want to help, but may not be able to right now, a viable option to make an impact!

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