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How to start a planned giving program without a planned giving officer

Updated January 31, 2022 by Virginia Davidson

Start a planned gift program

How to start a planned giving program without a planned giving officer

Want to talk about death and finances?

Didn’t think so. Planned giving, at its core, is indeed about death and finances, so if the words “planned giving” tie your stomach in knots, you’re not the only fundraiser who feels that way! But planned giving is about so much more. A planned gift empowers donors to:

  • Be proactive in defining their legacy

  • Have a significant, lasting impact on a cause that matters to them

  • Provide comfort to family and loved ones who know that the donor is making a difference in the world beyond his or her own lifetime

  • Inspire others to make planned gifts

When you think about it that way, planned giving doesn’t sound so bad. And when you consider the important role that planned gifts can have on a non-profit’s ability to achieve its mission, sustain its operations, and expand its programs, planned giving becomes quite appealing. Yet the majority of small and medium non-profit organizations do not have a planned giving program, perhaps because the prospect of starting one may seem daunting.

But here’s the good news: It seems a lot more daunting than it actually is! Keep reading to discover how you can get a planned giving program off the ground without hiring a planned giving officer or learning lots of complicated estate and tax laws.

The basics about planned giving

What is planned giving?

Al Cantor defines it as “The charitable distribution of assets at the time of, or in anticipation of, death.”

How does a donor make a planned gift? 

The most common (and simplest!) method of making a planned gift is for donors to make a bequest. Donors can make a bequest through their estate by including a provision in their will or living trust. Alternatively, they can name a non-profit organization as a beneficiary of a retirement plan or life insurance policy. The donor can identify a dollar amount or a percentage of the assets to be given.

There are many other methods of making a planned gift, with varying degrees of complexity, such as charitable gift annuities and charitable remainder unitrusts. As you get started, don’t be intimidated by those. Focus on promoting bequests, which are the most common way that donors make a planned gift.

How to get started with a planned giving program

Highlight an example

 If your organization has received a bequest, highlight that gift in your newsletter. Make sure you present the example in a donor-centric way. Focus on the donor’s story – why the mission of your organization resonated with them, the impact the gift is having, and how it continues the donor’s interests and passions beyond their lifetime.

If your organization hasn’t received a bequest yet, that’s okay. Reach out to board members and past board members and ask them to name your organization in their will. That will give you an example to use in your newsletter and other communications.

Establish a legacy society

A legacy society can be used to recognize those donors who have made a planned gift commitment to your organization. Celebrate members of your legacy society in your annual report and newsletter, and at special events.

Communicate about your planned giving program

  • Add a planned giving section to your website, and include sample bequest language.
  • Regularly provide information on planned giving in your newsletter, and add a link in your e-newsletter that brings them to the information on your website.
  • Edit your remittance envelopes and online donation forms to add a check box that donors can check if they’d like to receive information about making a bequest to your organization.

When promoting planned giving in your communications, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Don’t relegate the topic of planned giving to the fine print! If you present information about planned giving in a size 10 or 11 font, you’re making it difficult for donors to access that information, especially your older donors.

  1. Keep your planned giving information ever-present. Make it easy for donors to know that your organization welcomes and accepts bequests, and that these gifts have a lasting impact. A donor may glaze over this information in your newsletter or on your remittance envelope for months or even years. But if you consistently present the information, there will likely come a time when it resonates with the donor; perhaps he or she is helping an aging parent with end-of-life decisions, or another life event has motivated them to get their own affairs in order.

  1. When promoting planned gifts, ask donors to let you know if they’ve named your organization in their will so that they can be recognized in your Legacy Society, but also assure them that they can remain anonymous if they prefer. Here’s some sample language: “If you have already named ABC Organization in your will or trust, please let us know so that we may welcome you into our Legacy Society. Requests for anonymity will be honored.” And, be sure you have a system in place to track those donors. (Note, if you’re using Little Green Light, check out this resource on some best practices of managing planned giving data in your donor management system.)

Prepare printed materials 

Send them to donors who express interest in making a planned gift. These materials don’t have to be complex. Identify the options available to donors, and simplify things for them by including sample language that they can use to make a bequest.

Connect with an estate attorney

You don’t need to know all the particulars of planned gifts yourself. But you’ll want to know who to contact for guidance in case a donor reaches out to you with questions.

Be consistent

After you’ve established a Legacy Society and incorporated planning giving information into your organization’s communications, don’t stop! Continue highlighting every bequest, making it easy for donors to access information about making a planned gift, and recognizing the members of your Legacy Society.


Launching a planned giving program does take time and effort, and not every non-profit takes advantage of the opportunities that planned gifts provide. But by setting aside some time to follow these steps and establish a planned giving program, you will lay the groundwork for an important source of support for your organization’s mission. And you’re doing something very meaningful for your donors, too: giving them the opportunity to better the world even after they’re gone.

2 thoughts on “How to start a planned giving program without a planned giving officer

  1. Our organization is starting a Planned Giving Initiative. I forwarded your article to members of our committee. Everyone found your article very informative, taking away some of the apprehension we had with going forward. We now believe we can do this by following your suggestions.

    1. Arlene, thanks for sharing! We’d love to hear how your Planned Giving program goes! Timi

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