Top 10 Planned Giving Marketing Strategies

Last year, Russell James, well-known expert in planned giving and Professor of Personal Financial Planning at Texas Tech University, presented a webinar sponsored by PG Calc entitled “Top 10 Gift Marketing Strategies from Scientific Research.” In this webinar, Dr. James presented research focusing on 10 “rules” for effective communications with prospective donors. What follows is a summary of his fascinating research. You may purchase a recording of the webinar on the PG Calc website.

The first two rules focus on references to death in donor communications. The first rule confirms what you already know, that people avoid references that evoke the topic of death. Nonetheless, the second rule recognizes oblique death references, under the right circumstances, are appropriate. This is particularly true when the message is paired with a communication focused on the opportunity to make a lasting social impact.

The third rule focuses on the power of social norms in influencing decisions and can be summarized as the “people like me do things like this” rule. The basic thesis is that social norms become particularly powerful in a mortality context. If people like me do things like this, i.e., make legacy gifts, then I am considerably more likely to do that thing as well.

In discussing the fourth rule, Advance the Donor Life Story, the webinar points to research indicating charitable bequest decisions involve the brain region associated with “visualized autobiography.” As such this rule emphasizes how the charity fits into the donor’s values and history.

Rule five encourages tribute gifts in wills. Dr. James indicates that willingness to make a bequest gift increases when the gift is made in tribute to a family member.

Rules six and seven address common practices of using “family vs formal” words in donor communications. The use of formal or business language turns the philanthropy conversation into a transactional communication. Family or informal language reflects the emotional and values-based discussion that should surround conversations around end of life gifts.

Stewardship and communications become particularly critical, as rule eight notes, toward the end of life, when death is near, or when family structure changes. Dr. James recommends not “going radio silent” at these critical stages. Annual giving from the oldest donors falls off as death approaches. This is also when donors contemplate their mortality and what will be their legacy. Steward known estate gift donors continuously to keep your charity top of mind.

Rule nine recommends targeting the 3 C’s – childlessness, consistency (in donating), and capacity (not just wealth, but increasing wealth). Childlessness is the single most important indicator a donor will consider a charitable estate gift. Consistent annual giving coupled with increasing wealth also point to those most likely to consider a charitable estate gift.

Finally, rule ten refers to the “Non-probate Transfers Revolution,” and recommends exploring options with the donor that go beyond the will, for example, testamentary titling of assets, including the beneficiary deed, and beneficiary designations. Americans are increasingly relying on distributing their estate in ways other than the traditional will. These methods could include the living trust, a beneficiary designation, or other transfer on death instructions. Marketing materials should encourage including charity in the will along with these non-probate transfers.