How to Be a Planned Giving Leader When the Going Gets Tough

We’ve all had to walk through challenging times and uncertainties. While never fun, they’re unavoidable—a natural part of life, rich with lessons.

After all, without any struggle, achievements can feel empty.

Among other leadership qualities, I’ve found that perseverance affects how we overcome obstacles and can determine whether or not we reach the finish line.

It also factors into our success as development professionals, especially if we’re launching or revitalizing a planned giving program. How do we stay the course when “battle plans” get bumpy? Do we simply say the time’s not right or it’s too much take on and put the plan on hold?

Or do we dig in and get through those difficult times?

We can look to historical leaders to learn what to do (and what not to do) when our leadership skills are being put to the test.

Recently I learned …

Napoleon Bonaparte was considered by some historians and present-day thinkers as ahead of his time in his leadership style. His characteristics of persevering leaders, which career coach and leadership trainer Jenny Garrett shares in her blog, strike me as absolutely relevant for how to succeed in planned giving. We can apply them in this way:


Repeat three words as you build or rebuild your program: What’s the purpose? Ask your team, your ED, your board, your planned giving committee. Freely write their thoughts as a group-think project on large posterboards. Keep them on display for others to add thoughts and work to mold them into a succinct yet substantive mission statement. Make it your manifesto as you move ahead.

Added evidence for leading with purpose? Donors are showing increased interest in nearly all types of planned giving, and many are increasing the size of their planned gifts in light of the pandemic.* Specifically:

  • 62% of fundraisers said interest in charitable bequests had grown.
  • 54% said interest in donor-advised-fund designations had increased.
  • While some fundraisers have certainly seen donors withdraw their revocable gifts, 63% have seen planned-gift donors raise their gift amounts during the pandemic.


Impart inspiration, not just involvement, among your board, so they become your planned giving ambassadors. To do that, put your mission statement to work. Together with your board, set annual planned giving goals with quarterly tactics. Also, meet individually with board members about making their own planned gift. Challenge them to put the wheels in motion and/or attend prospect meetings with you.


First, believe in yourself: You possess the exact qualities and skills that your nonprofit needs at this very moment to lead the way in planned giving.

Second, believe in your nonprofit’s mission: It’s doing something so unique for the community and world that if it weren’t here, people would suffer. Your nonprofit’s planned giving mission is to put the resources in place today to provide operational security for the future. You’re doing important work.


Minimally, do a 12-month action plan, broken down into six-month “chunks” of specific actionable activities. Think big idea to small tactics, or an outline of goals and steps to reach those goals.

We go into more detail about goal setting in “What You Need to Have a Successful Planned Giving Program.” It also delves into getting back to basics, like understanding that planned gifts aren’t linear in nature and how to account for that when setting goals. (Hint: monitor activities)


Start with a survey.

User-friendly and affordable digital survey tools can help maintain order and simplify the feedback process. Other tips for creating better surveys:

  • Start small. Use a 30-second survey with a few targeted yes or no questions. In some cases, longer surveys can put people off.
  • Share it. Have internal staff, board members or trusted volunteers take the survey before you publish it to assess ease of use and quality of answers.
  • Keep it short. With no more than 20 questions on any survey and with yes/no options, multiple choice, checklist options or other closed questions that elicit an either/or answer. If you include an open-ended response feature, use one for every 10 questions.

Use clean data.

Stelter Client Strategist Renee Durnin shares how “dirty data” leads to poor audience (donor and prospect) selection results, and pro tips to level up your list.


Is your nonprofit new to planned giving? Start with bequests and beneficiary designations to build your confidence to talk about planned giving with others. They’re easy to explain and easy for donors to understand. Plus, according to Giving USA, these types of planned gifts are the most popular amongst donors, with 68.1% of their respondents saying they are most likely to make a bequest, followed by a beneficiary of a retirement plan (29.7%).


Numbers vary widely on how long it takes to form a new habit. From personal experience, you might know this too. Even research studies differ. But according to a 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 18 to 254 days. How’s that for a range?

On average, however, plan on nearly 70 days for a new behavior to become automatic.

Start with you. Build the habit to do One (Planned Giving) Thing every day if juggling multiple development jobs or hats. Maybe that involves working on cleaning your donor list for one hour every day or making five phone calls to donors. The key is to set your mini daily goal first thing and muster that willpower to make it happen. Realizing planned giving growth is a marathon, not a sprint.

TIP: Read “How to Thrive: 15 Habits of Successful Planned Giving Pros” for other ways to succeed in your work.

Build Habits Between Teams

Make it a long-term goal to work and plan with other development teams. Seven percent of planned giving donors say their annual gifts increased after making a planned gift, says Giving USA. They’re all in with their financial commitment—reciprocate that dedication with outreach strategies that complement one another across teams and appear as one cohesive message to donors. 

If Napoleon can do it, so can you. Think about it—what unique qualities do you possess that can or already have helped you conquer your planned giving program? Any we’ve missed?

*Marts & Lundy and the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners survey.

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