If you could ensure that your nonprofit existed in ten years, would you do it? What about 20, 30, or even 50 years?

I suspect that anyone who works for a nonprofit would answer this in the affirmative.

And yet, too often (especially at small- to mid-sized nonprofits), the surest avenue toward long-term sustainability is disregarded. I’m talking about legacy giving or planned giving.

Let’s get a caveat out of the way at the outset: if you are at risk of insolvency this year, legacy giving isn’t a priority for you. I get it. But absent this existential crisis, I can say with confidence that you should probably be doing more to cultivate legacy commitments within your donor base.

What’s more, you’ve probably been hearing recently about the “great wealth transfer” forthcoming. With the intergenerational transfer of an estimated $30 trillion (or $59 trillion or $68 trillion…), you don’t want to be sitting this one out.

I wrote previously about how to get a legacy society off the ground. Here I want to offer some advice on how to establish a culture of legacy giving—namely, by straightening out the crooked incentives that precipitate this disregard for legacy giving within your development department.


It is no secret that tenures for those in development are brief, with one study estimating the average duration at around 16 months for most fundraisers. Moreover, revenue goals bestowed to development directors from on high are often incredibly ambitious (to say the least) or totally divorced from reality.

Like the NFL General Manager who is happy to trade away players and draft picks in future years in an effort to save his job in the present, development directors at these organizations are thus motivated to prioritize the immediate over long-term institutional growth. Unrealistic goals pit near-term success of long-term stability.

And so the result: there is little incentive to introduce legacy giving opportunities to donors when faced with a daunting annual revenue goal. Even worse, goals like this can incite development officers to rush the major gift process in an effort to bring money in now, rather than partnering with donors to give generously as they are able.

The troubles of unrealistic goals are thus compounded. The organization might have a good year this year—but at the expense of not only the next couple decades, but potentially even the next couple years, as well.


Nonprofit leaders, you can fix this. Of course, the most effective solution is to foster a culture that retains and supports its staff. Development officers will be more inclined to invest in future sustainability when they are confident in their future with the organization.

Beyond that, consider incorporating legacy giving targets as part of your development team’s goals. These goals should not constitute another unrealistic goal. They should be informed and realistic—which also means adjusted at least annually—and properly accounted within the annual revenue goals. Adding these goals will begin to reshape organizational perspectives around legacy giving. And that’s a benefit for your organization and whomever it is your organization serves.

For many development officers, they investing time in a legacy giving program as an act of charity, born out of their deep commitment to the organization’s mission. This is well and good, of course … except that they’ll have to ditch the effort as soon as more urgent tasks erupt onto the scene. And unrealistic annual goals increases the likelihood of such an eruption!

But remember: legacy giving programs offer an opportunity for fundraiser and donor to together dream about the future of the organization and mission that they love. These programs also reinforce confidence among staff, donors, and other key stakeholders the organization is here to stay: “we’re in this for the long haul.”

Investing time and resources in the near-term is essential. You have to pay this month’s bills and meet the needs of your constituents right now. But the potential from legacy giving is vast. Realistic goal setting, a healthy culture, and good planning will provide the space and motivation you need to make planned giving a serious and important part of your development efforts.