Nonprofit fundraising professionals do not leave any stone unturned in their pursuit of additional revenue streams. Yet many nonprofits neglect planned giving, either by not having a program in the first place or by not giving it the time and attention that it warrants.

And planned giving definitely warrants time and attention.

I won’t go into detail as to why—my brilliant colleague has already done so here—but I will say that charitable giving is poised to increase significantly as a vast generational transfer of wealth is expected to take place in the coming decades. To give you one figure: philanthropic experts predict that total charitable giving could reach $72 trillion by the year 2061. (That’s trillion, with a “t.”) And with the baby boomers entering their prime retirement years, we’re primed for a planned giving bonanza (sorry, baby boomers).

Many fundraisers view planned giving programs as onerous, complex, and devoid of immediate benefits. But they don't have to be! Let’s walk through the six things you need to know for starting a planned giving program at your nonprofit organization.

1. Setting up a planned giving program is as easy as communicating to your donors that you accept planned gifts. It’s easy to get lost in all the options once you move beyond the cold hard cash that defines most fundraising efforts. It’s also easy to envision your organization being bled dry by lawyers, consultants, and others as you try to understand the planned giving landscape to set up a program.

But get the basics down first. Starting a planned giving program is as easy as telling your donors that they can put your organization in their wills. Build up the program over time, adding new benefits and accepting new types of gifts, but start simple. You can also accept your donor’s pledge first, and figure out how to process and receive it later.

2. You have to commit to your program over the long term. Even a well-constructed and well-maintained planned giving program may not bear fruit for months, or even a few years. But the long term benefits certainly justify your investment of time and resources. Some donors may not even be aware that they can give non-cash gifts to your organization, and a planned giving program offers increased flexibility that donors will appreciate.

3. Select a name for your legacy society that is unique to your organization, and offer benefits that you can easily fulfill. Over and above the increased flexibility that a legacy society provides donors, a successful program will offer donors both recognition and access. Donors, for the most part, appreciate—and sometimes expect—both public recognition and increased access for their gifts to your organization. Setting up a quarterly conference call with your president, creating legacy society lapel pins for members, and offering VIP privileges at large organizational events are just a few of the benefits that you can both promise and confidently deliver. These benefits, along with the name of your legacy society itself, should reflect your organization’s unique character, status, and work. An effective planned giving program makes membership personal to donors, bringing them further into the life of your organization.

4. Identify your best planned giving prospects. Your best prospects are going to be individuals who currently give to your organization. I hope that’s fairly obvious.

What’s less obvious is that your very best prospects are not those donors who give you the most; it’s the donors who give to you the most.

Of course, your best donors support you frequently and substantially. That’s why they’re your top donors. However, research has shown that the most predictive indicator of future planned gifts is an individual’s longevity as a donor. So, as you cull through your donor list for planned giving prospects, don’t ignore the donor who has given you $100 each year for the last 15. They may maintain rather than increase their giving now, but a much larger bequest could come later.

5. Unveil your planned giving program to donors and prospects in a clear way and continue to incorporate it into your communications efforts—both solicitations and non-solicitations. A legacy society is not something that you want to surprise donors with. After you are confident that your program is ready to launch, prepare a special mailing or other campaign to announce your new society. Your program should have distinct branding, but not be wholly disconnected from your overall messaging or larger organization. A logo that is meaningfully distinct, but resembles your organizational logo and design scheme, is a good start. Then, make sure you continue to mention your planned giving program in communications. Creating a brochure or other collateral piece also helps.

6. Don’t avoid talking about planned giving with your donors, but be strategic in how you frame the discussion. Conversations about planned giving are colored by the massive implication that hangs in the air—that the donor will die someday. Of course, you—the fundraiser—will too, but chances are that you are much younger than your fellow traveler, and this discrepancy underscores the delicacy of the conversation. Be mindful of your donor’s fears and insecurities, but also of their hopes and dreams. We all want our legacy to extend beyond our own lives, and every discussion of planned giving should focus on these positives. You’re not trying to trick your donors into willing their money away to you, so listen to what they have to say. They’ve stood by you, so stand with them.

I hope that these six tips have addressed any reservations you may have had about planned giving and outlined how to do planned giving right. If your legacy society is the focal point of your organization’s development efforts, something is definitely wrong. But a robust planned giving program should prove a steady and fruitful aspect of your development program—one that is valued by your organization and your donors alike.

American Philanthropic helps purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. You can learn more about American Philanthropic online at and check out the new fundraising Master Class, "In the Trenches."