We welcome back a special guest: Stelter’s Content Director, Katie Parker, to offer her insights on the legacy donor’s journey.
Let’s take a trip together. In our roles as planned giving fundraisers, we get to support donors as they make the trek from mission lovers to legacy givers. Stelter recently spent time mapping this unique journey.
To begin, we studied donor psychology research, behavioral economics and direct marketing best practices (thanks, Dr. Russell James, Dr. Adrian Sargeant, ANA, Giving USA, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance, among others). Then we dug into decades of our clients’ results.
We ultimately documented five phases of the legacy donor’s journey: Supporting, Discovering, Considering, Deciding and Acting. Read on to map your donors’ path.
Phase 1: Supporting
Here your legacy prospect has shown that they care about your organization’s mission through regular cash gifts. Your fellow fundraisers—possibly the annual giving team—got the donor here by building trust: telling them how grateful your organization is for their commitment, sending them timely thank-you messages and showing them the impact their gifts are making.
So, what are we watching for?
- Increasing giving frequency or amount.
- Deepening engagement. Look for donors engaging through advocacy, championing the cause through peer-to-peer campaigns or volunteering.
Phase 2: Discovering
Time to build the relationship! Help donors feel important and appreciated. Reiterate that their gifts matter and give them ways to strengthen their engagement and voice their opinions. A survey, for example, is a great tool for giving donors a forum. Interact with donors on social media or host events that allow them to meet experts and ask questions.
During Discovering, introduce the idea of legacy gifts as a way to extend support. Two in 3 American adults don’t have a will, so part of closing the gap is making them aware that they need a will, and that estate planning is for everyone. Marketing can also educate donors that there are people at your nonprofit who specialize in estate planning and are available as resources.
- Growing engagement. If you’ve heard the phrase “Planned givers are often an organization’s closest friends,” this is the stage. Here donors are often the ones attending events, possibly even in leadership volunteer roles.
- Consuming educational articles. Look for email click-throughs or web traffic to content that introduces legacy giving; content that answers questions like Do I need an estate plan?; and tools that make taking the first step easier.
Phase 3: Considering
Here donors are thinking about their values and legacy. They’re considering their long-term plans and commitments. Donors who make it to this phase will often hang out for a while. They may reflect on their life, their priorities and their legacy. Donors with families and those who support multiple causes may be weighing priorities.
Time to be top of mind! This may mean reminding them of the important role your organization has had in their life story. Think about Russell James and the fMRI study he did a few years ago. He compared the bequest decision-making process to donors visualizing the last chapter in their autobiography.
- Reviewing your organization’s vision. This donor may be studying your track record to see if you’ve had success in the past and if that success is likely to continue.
We can help donors in this phase by giving them content and tools to aid their reflection on your role in their lives, and by continuously affirming their importance and connection to your mission.
Phase 4: Deciding
Psychologically, donors at this stage are integrating the nonprofit with their identity. In Russell James’ work, this is what allows for the idea of death transcendence, or living on through an estate gift.
- Increasing web traffic. Donors may be researching which gifts might be best for their goals. This can look like more frequently visiting your web pages or downloading digital guides, particularly of gift-vehicle-specific content.
- Contacting you!
At this phase, donors are often having conversations with trusted advisors and loved ones, so content can focus on removing barriers to those conversations: how to talk with family members, which experts can help guide estate planning decisions and what questions to ask those experts. This is a great point for your organization to help them structure a gift that helps them achieve the impact they want to have, so we also want to use marketing to encourage them to connect and consult with your gift officers.
Social proof can be effective at all stages of the donor’s journey, but at this phase it can nudge giving decisions by establishing legacy giving as a social norm.
Phase 5: Acting
Here donors connect with estate planning professionals or tools. For example, donors making a beneficiary designation update their beneficiary forms.
- Requesting bequest language.
- Completing a gift notification form.
Messaging at this phase is all about making it easy. Provide step-by-step actions and incentivize donors to share their intentions, like through a legacy match challenge.
The Journey Begins (Again)
Each journey is unique. Donors may move quickly through phases or skip a phase due to confidence in their finances, for example. They may not need your assistance during a phase or they may double back if they’ve lost trust in your mission or had a personal event that refocused their needs. Watch for the indicators for a sense of where a donor is today.
A terrific part of our job is what follows the Acting phase. As we know, a donor’s decisions can evolve and even completely change. That’s why the next map we build together should be Stewardship.