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Rethinking the Donor Pyramid:

Updated: May 13

Our greatest bequest prospects may not be who we think.

By Kimberly Jetton, CFRE, MNM

Years ago, I heard a donor story from the CEO of an organization in a large city. It made a lasting impression on me, and I have shared it many times with others since.  The CEO had been at his post for three years, and each year, he received a check for $5 from a woman who lived about 90 miles away.  As he received that check each year, he dismissed it as a waste of time and effort for the donor and the organization.  After all, what could $5 do?  In the fourth year, he received a check for $500,000 from her estate attorney after she had passed away.  That $5 donor had a whole new meaning, and he regretted his opinion of her and the fact that he couldn't thank her in person.  This story strikes me in several ways, not the least because it's bittersweet to receive such a gift.  This donor could have been a friend to the cause if given some outreach, and her value could have been expressed before her passing.  

In the world of planned giving, we try our best not to let events such as this happen.  We want to know and appreciate our donors while they are here. How do we take steps toward this goal? By understanding who our best prospects are.

Disregard the Traditional Donor Pyramid

Most top bequest prospects have never given a major gift, which goes against much of what we are taught early on in fundraising by the "donor pyramid." My suggestion: Disregard this pyramid if you want to get serious about securing bequest gifts.  We often want to steward our major gift donors and high-net-worth individuals.  That is fine, too, but in my experience, that is not who leaves the majority of bequests.  Remember that many other organizations are stewarding your high-net-worth donors.  The traditional donor pyramid model often emphasizes cultivating major gift donors and high-net-worth individuals, but this approach may overlook a substantial pool of bequest prospects. 

Our Best Prospects

Focusing on donors who have consistently supported the organization over many years can reveal hidden opportunities. Though these loyal supporters may not have made large donations, they have demonstrated a deep connection to the mission and a commitment to its success. Moreover, their true wealth may lie in assets, such as real estate or inherited assets, rather than liquid funds. Therefore, it's essential to appreciate the giving potential of these individuals, as we saw in our example of the $5 annual donor. By engaging with donors with a long history of supporting the organization, nonprofits can uncover significant opportunities for legacy gifts that may have been overlooked. These legacy gifts, often in the form of bequests, can play a crucial role in ensuring the sustainability and continued success of the organization, making your role in planned giving all the more significant.

Focus on employees and volunteers.  In my experience, these individuals have the highest affinity with your organization but are often overlooked.  Longtime employees and volunteers are not just individuals who have served the organization for a long time; they are deeply committed to the mission and values of the nonprofit they serve. Their dedication and commitment over the years demonstrate a profound belief in the organization's work and impact. 

This strong bond and sense of belonging make them prime candidates to consider leaving a bequest or legacy gift to the nonprofit. Having invested their time, energy, and passion into furthering the organization's goals, they naturally want to ensure its sustainability and continued success even after they're no longer actively involved. Even if longtime employees and volunteers may not have the means to make large donations while alive, they possess an invaluable asset: their loyalty and dedication. Their enduring commitment to the organization speaks volumes about their belief in its mission and effectiveness. 

Asking these individuals to consider leaving a bequest or legacy gift is not just about financial support; it's about honoring their legacy and impact over the years. These individuals have invested countless hours, contributed their skills, and built strong relationships within the nonprofit community. Encouraging them to leave a bequest is a way to recognize and celebrate their lifelong commitment, ensuring that their influence continues long into the future. Additionally, their decision to leave a legacy gift can inspire others within the organization and the wider community to follow suit, creating a ripple effect of support that strengthens the nonprofit's mission for years to come.

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