Inspire Your Donors to Say, “An Estate Gift is a Smart Choice”

We have some hefty work to do as planned giving fundraisers. Just consider the nuanced steps we must climb—we need to ensure that the donor:

  1. Believes in the cause
  2. Believes that they can personally make a difference in the cause
  3. Believes that our organization is the most capable and trustworthy to affect the cause

Plus, we have a BIG #4: Ensure that the donor believes that an estate gift is a good way to support the cause.


We’re also up against some tough numbers. A 2022 study done by found that 2 out of 3 Americans don’t have a will.

But there is good news. We’re in the business of helping donors think about how their life can make the biggest impact. To use a word from the psychology field, we’re in the business of death transcendence.

We get to help donors consider how they want to be remembered and how they want their values to live on. Now…how do we market that?

Tactics That Work

I’ll start with the tactics you can use for making the case for an estate gift and two examples. Then I’ll entertain the researchers among us with a deeper dive into one scientific theory that influenced these ideas.

Here are 5 tactics to help motivate an estate gift:

  1. Create urgency. The enemy of estate planning isn’t “no,” it’s “later.” Make it urgent through deadlines, appointments and time-limited campaigns.
  2. Use permanence language. Frame messaging around legacy, endowments and impacts on future generations.
  3. Offer useful estate planning tools. Provide resources, like an estate inventory or online documentation, to help make estate planning preparations easier.
  4. Promote the ease of estate planning. Messaging and testimonials that cover the simplicity of leaving a legacy gift can help overcome barriers.
  5. Educate on smart ways to accomplish goals. Offer content on tax-savvy ways to provide for both loved ones and loved organizations. (Psst: But don’t focus solely on tax savings. While tax savings can motivate some donors and help them maximize their impact, it should not be a primary focus. Appeal to the heart.)

Here’s Tactic #2, using permanence language:

In this planned giving homepage for Carnegie Hall, the headline is a clear case for support using language that extends beyond an individual’s lifetime.

Here’s Tactic #3, offering an estate planning tool:

In this direct mail insert for World Wildlife Fund, they offer a complimentary way to get more out of your retirement plan assets.

Some Psychology for You

Ready to understand your planned giving prospects a bit better?

There’s research on something called terror-management theory, which suggests that people respond to the idea of death in one of two ways: Either they avoid it, or they want to transcend it. Transcending death can have a literal, religious meaning through an afterlife, or it can be more symbolic—the lasting mark people leave on the world.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that we go through eight stages of psychosocial development. The two final stages align with the age of our typical legacy giving prospect: Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation and Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair.

Let’s zoom in on those final two stages.

Stage 7: Generativity might be a new term for you (it was for me). As many of us age, we begin wanting to help the next generation. (See it now: generativity, generation.) In this stage, we think about the mark we wish to make on the world, which we’re often doing through parenthood or our work.

  • To make this group feel successful: Help them actively contribute to their communities.
  • To market to them: Show them how their gifts can benefit their communities, and especially how they will help the next generation. (See Tactics #2 and #5.)

Stage 8: Erikson theorizes that we enter our last stage of development when we begin to tackle our mortality. This is often triggered by life events, such as retirement or the loss of a loved one. We are reflecting on our life story and considering whether we led a meaningful life.

  • To make this group feel successful: They need to have few regrets and believe that they are leaving behind something that will last.
  • To market to them: Show how their contributions (financial or volunteer) have been meaningful, and help them achieve permanence through a legacy gift. (See Tactics #2 and #3.)

Closing a Planned Gift

One final note on this topic, you need to help a prospect believe that they need an estate plan in the first place. On average, Americans create the first will around age 44 and their first legacy gift at age 53. Perceived barriers to creating a will include cost and difficulty, but your marketing can focus on how you and your organization can help.

As I said, hefty work. But incredibly powerful.

Leave a Reply