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Kathleen Brennan of Emerson & Church, Publishers interviews David Valinsky and Melanie Boyd, authors of Raising Money Through Bequests: How Your Organization Can Profit from the Biggest Intergenerational Transfer of Wealth in History.

When we’re talking about bequests, we’re talking about death. Isn’t that a touchy subject to bring up to prospective donors?

Boyd: In an old standup act, Jerry Seinfeld talks about public speaking being our number one fear, even before death. So he suggests that if you’re at a funeral, it’s better to be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy. But we’re not talking about death or public speaking here, we’re talking about an individual’s ability to create a legacy. Certainly, we don’t suggest sitting down with a relative stranger and saying, “So, how about leaving us in your will after you’re gone?” Fundraising is all about relationships. You care about people, and you’re spending time with them to find out what they care about. You’ve looked through their picture albums with them; you’ve helped arrange flowers from their garden. If you have that kind of relationship, there may well come a time when it’s perfectly natural – and appropriate – to simply ask whether they’ve ever considered including your organization in their estate plans.

Do most people have wills?

Valinsky: Unfortunately, only 40 percent of all adults – and only 70 percent of adults over the age of 55 – have wills. Of those who do, many haven’t updated them to reflect changes in their life. The fact is we’re all busy, and what often doesn’t make our “To Do” list is crafting or updating this simple document. Of course, the impact on nonprofit organizations is pretty straightforward: if there’s no will, there’s zero possibility your organization will receive a bequest. That’s why we spend a lot of time in the book talking about how to educate donors about the importance of creating a will.

Don’t people generally leave most of their money to their children?

Boyd: We hear that question more and more from staff and volunteers, but when we talk to donors it’s clear this isn’t always the case. Sure, people want to make certain their spouses and children are taken care of, but many of them don’t want to “leave it all to the kids.” They want their children to develop a work ethic. More and more of us, even when we’re not big wealth holders, can leave money to our children and still have something left over for organizations we care about.

Do bequests to charitable organizations come mostly from wealthy people?

Valinsky: Many people leave extraordinary bequests to organizations. At the same time, bequests often come from folks who don’t have great wealth but are equally passionate about particular organizations. For many of them, leaving a bequest is a way to do something they never could have done during their lifetimes from assets alone.

What are the top reasons people make charitable bequests?

Valinsky: People give because they believe in the mission and they’ve seen it realized firsthand. They trust you to use their gift wisely. They believe in what the organization stands for and what it delivers. They value you as a staff member or volunteer and the relationship that you’ve developed with them. Often, tax benefits don’t even figure in the top ten list of reasons.

How difficult is it to start a bequest program from scratch and will it be costly? Valinsky: Implementing a bequest program doesn’t have cost a dime. By using the communication vehicles you already have, you can invite your donors to share their intentions. Who knows? You may be surprised at how many donors have already left you in their wills, yet never let you know simply because you never asked.

How long after starting my program can I expect to see results?

Valinsky: It’s always difficult to predict, and this is the most often-asked question development professionals hear from their boards when they first propose the idea. Pressed for an answer, I’d say it may take three to five years for mature bequests to come. But ask yourself this: If the leadership of your organization had the foresight to start a similar program five, ten, or fifty years ago, where would your organization be today? That’s the legacy – the incredible opportunity – you have before you. In fact, it may well be the best legacy you can leave.

How familiar do I need to become with all the legal terminology and the proper wording of bequests?

Valinsky: It’s important to read some of the general information on bequests, to put this type of fundraising on your radar screen. But it’s more important to know how your organization impacts lives, and to have stories that illustrate this. Your donors will go to their personal advisors for the technical information (and should, since you don’t want to give out legal advice). What you need to focus on is being vigilant about sharing stories, meeting with donors, and letting them know that bequest giving is an option.

Describe the best audience in terms of bequest prospects – are we talking about young, old, middle-class, wealthy, married or widowed?

Valinsky: The short answer is ‘all of the above’. Regardless of their status, the best audience is always going to be those who have been involved with your organization for a good period of time: board members, staff, clients, volunteers, and donors. It’s important that all members of your constituency know bequest giving is an option.

If you had to give one piece of advice for starting and sustaining a successful bequest program, what would it be?

Valinsky: Actually, I have three: patience, passion, and persistence. You need patience because the results will often take time. You have to have a passion for your organization and its programs and services. And you have to have the persistence to keep the program in front of those people. In the midst of the deadlines, board meetings, annual appeals, special events, and daily challenges, you have to set aside time to make that phone call or set up that luncheon meeting if you’re going to ensure that your organization prospers tomorrow.


About the Authors:

David Valinsky and Melanie Boyd are authors of Raising Money Through Bequests: How Your Organization Can Profit from the Biggest Intergenerational Transfer of Wealth in History, by Emerson & Church, Publishers (

To order Raising Money Through Bequests, please visit or call 508-359-0019.

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