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Documenting Donor Bequests: Is it an Art or Science?

Similar to the tremendous amount of giving that occurs in the last quarter of the calendar year, the first quarter of the new year is an exceptionally active time for donors fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions, including one in particular—revisiting their estate plans. This period of time may have an immense future impact on your health care organization and involves donors and/or their advisors reaching out to request specific information that will bring their planning to fruition.


For many philanthropy officers, this can be an anxiety-producing time that gives pause to an important question; a question that can be pivotal in the relationship between donors and the organization; a question based in trust and honesty: “Do we, or do we not, ask our donors to document their legacy intentions with us?”


Let’s be honest here. We all want to reach our personal and organizational goals when it comes to fund development production and revenue, while also guaranteeing the donor’s future intent will be honored. However, the act of documenting donor intentions may cause hesitation and possibly even end the conversation. While recognition may not be important to the donor, the organization wants to ensure the bequest stands the test of time and that it will be used how the donor wants it to be used. Some donors are adamant in saying, “My advisor told me not to put anything in writing,” while others assert, “My lawyer encouraged me to talk with you and make sure that my bequest will make my desired impact well into the future.” Philanthropy officers must walk a very fine line with donors, making sure to do what is in the best interests of both parties. Here are some important questions to consider when meeting your donors’ goals:

  • What is their personal history with the organization?

  • Is donor recognition important to them?

  • What is the role and influence of their professional advisor?

  • Is there concern that their gift may be too restrictive and difficult to use in the future?

  • Will the family have stewardship expectations for the bequest?

  • Are they concerned they may change their mind?

  • If they are a couple, do they agree on the bequest and/or impact?

  • Are they interested in inspiring other donors by sharing their own intentions?

  • Will this gift reflect their own vision for the organization while making a meaningful impact that aligns with their own values?

Meeting donor expectations will require a donor-centered approach, while also balancing the organization’s desire to count future intentions.

Ultimately, documenting bequests is an art. It is an act of understanding a donor’s personal needs and desires for a legacy, while capturing it on paper to ensure their future wishes are fulfilled and their impact will stand the test of time. Meeting donor expectations will require a donor-centered approach, while also balancing the organization’s desire to count future intentions. When handled with care, you can protect the diverse and deeply meaningful legacy of the donors, while also allowing your organization to tell their story and demonstrate impact.


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About the Author: James Gold is a Principal Consultant with Accordant, specializing in planned giving, program assessments and campaign readiness. You can reach him at James@AccordantHealth.com or through LinkedIn.

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