Estate Planning: Starting the Conversation

In the dream scenario, this conversation leads itself: While talking with a donor prospect, you ask about the status of their estate plan. They respond by saying, "Actually, we just completed an extensive review, and we're delighted with the conclusions we've reached, one of which is the decision to include your organization as a significant part of the plan.” When that happens, you can simply say thank you and ask about the details. The far more likely answer to that question, however, is something to the effect of: 

"Yeah -- we gotta do that.”

When in a relationship is it appropriate to raise the subject of death and dying -- namely as it relates to estate planning and/or charitable estate planning?  

Here's what our experience strongly suggests: Introduce the topic early (perhaps even during the first visit) in the donor relationship. This doesn't necessarily mean asking, “Have you included our charity in your estate plan?” Rather, what it means is to be clear with the donor prospect that estate giving is a critical source of resources for your organization.

A Beginning, Not an End

Estate giving is nothing more than another way for a committed donor to make a difference. But to take advantage of it, you need to be prepared to have a different kind of conversation.

When strategizing about how to bring up estate planning with a donor prospect, it will dial your stress level way back if you understand that broaching the estate commitment topic is your opportunity to treat your relationship as a beginning and not an end. Far too often, we define the estate commitment as the ultimate gift, where "ultimate" is left to be taken to mean "final" instead of what it's intended to describe, which is the best achievable gift. 

“Bequest donors are less interested in how an organization will fulfill its mission than in why the mission is important. Fundraisers should emphasize less how the donor’s dollars will affect the organization and more how the organization will benefit society.”  

- Adrian Sargeant, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

An Enduring Mission

As you prepare for an upcoming discussion with a donor prospect, plan to address the following four key items. These are important considerations for the donor during life, but their confidence and trust levels in your organization must extend far beyond that, as they know they will give up all control at the moment of their death.

Be prepared to assure them:

  1. Your organization will be around for a long time
  2. Your organization's mission will continue to be vital
  3. Your organization will not stray from that mission
  4. Your organization will carry out the donor's intentions

As in so much of what we do, there's no single right or wrong way to have this discussion. The better prepared you are, the more confidence you will have in yourself, which will make the conversation not only more relaxed but more productive.  

A sampling of the questions that will allow you further the conversation:

  • Does your estate plan include a charitable component?
  • Does the plan specify which of your assets go where?
  • What happens when you die? (Alternatively: What would be happening right now if you'd been killed in a car accident last week?)
  • Is your estate plan comprised of a will or a living trust?
  • If you have a living trust, have you also transferred your assets to that trust? 
  • Is your estate plan current and up to date?
  • Has your family been involved is creating your estate plan and your charitable decisions?
  • What information may I provide you that would help you in your decision to include our charity in your estate plan? 
  • Do you have grandchildren and will they benefit from your estate?
  • I recently visited with a friend of ___________ who was feeling so chipper after having just completing her plan. She admitted to having to make some difficult decisions, but she described the relief she felt after having done so as "amazing."

In addition to having these questions at the ready, you should be prepared to discuss your organization's legacy group. And be ready with stories of estate donors and the difference they have made.