Planned giving and pandemics: Strategies for smaller shops

Small development shops know how important and transformational planned gifts can be; yet few small shops have a dedicated planned giving professional. Now, as we all hunker down during the pandemic, is the perfect time to take stock and rededicate yourselves to making planned giving an important part of your program.

Below, I have identified five key steps you can take now toward prioritizing gift planning into your overall fundraising efforts.

Start with existing donors

Most institutions have a list of donors who have included them in their estate plans; perhaps you already acknowledge them in a legacy society. Now is the time to provide stewardship to these donors. After all, they are your closest friends, they have indicated that your institution is among their highest priorities, and they appreciate hearing from you.

In the last few weeks, we have heard from many clients indicating that outreach calls are being warmly received—whether by phone, email or video conference call. This is the perfect opportunity to thank your donors for their generous support. While doing so, also address the challenges we all are facing, remind them that your mission is as important as ever, and make sure to genuinely let them know how much you care about them during these uncertain times.

Everyone can pitch in

This is a time for all hands on deck. Development leaders need to decide who can conduct the immediate outreach. One school client has the long-serving alumni director making the majority of calls. A more staff-driven liberal arts college assigned all of its gift officers as a team to make calls. Consider having your CEO call three to five of those donors whose estate gifts will be most meaningful to your institution. Set a goal and track progress. Consider how many calls to planned giving donors you can place in a week, and what is the right number for your particular portfolio-to-staff ratio. If you need extra help, enlist a Board member to assist with outreach.

Review and update your planned giving program

While you are conducting the outreach, you can devote some time to reviewing and updating your gift planning program and identifying any gaps or challenges. Decide who should take the lead on this project and set a deadline. One school has the Associate Director of Advancement taking the lead.

Things to consider:

  • Program goals
  • How to measure success
  • Gift opportunities that allow for planned gift support
  • Planned giving instruments to accept
  • Marketing, including regular promotion in publications and direct marketing with a vendor or using staff resources
  • Expertise for more complicated gifts, volunteer or compensated
  • Recognition
  • Stewardship, including the critical role of face-to-face visits when conditions allow
Get ready for strategic estate planning conversations

As you get ready for the time when you can travel again, be very targeted in your planning activity. Most institutions already have donors who see their retirement plans as a vehicle for support. Even if their assets have declined, many must still make minimum distributions each year. A discussion about these giving vehicles can be a lead-in to asking donors if they have considered making your institution a beneficiary of their retirement accounts. It’s simple to recommend that they take 10 minutes to add your institution as a beneficiary on their plan’s website. Right now, financial advisers are encouraging their clients to confirm that their estate plans are in order, so prepare your team to be responsive for the time when prospects broach the subject. And be ready to have more conversations with those most likely to make estate gifts.

Build planned giving into your team’s work

Planned giving is not necessarily a distinct program in most small shops. To integrate it into your fundraising plans, enlist prospect researchers for wealth screening and predictive modeling of donors, including their  giving history, to enhance your prospect pool. Work with your fundraisers to identify gift opportunities that are appropriate for planned gifts, and incorporate planned giving conversations into arranged visits. Once your staff resumes travel, they will be prepared to address gift planning as part of their solicitation strategy. Just remember to enter these moves into your database so that they can be scheduled and executed.

For small shops that are concerned about how they are going to weather this pandemic, think of this unprecedented time as an opportunity to focus your donor work on stewardship while concentrating your office work on refining your gift planning program and determining next steps with potential donors.


If you need assistance developing your planned giving strategy, please contact Jim McKey at jmckey@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Jim McKey

Senior Vice President

Jim McKey, Senior Vice President, brings more than 30 years of experience in fundraising and administration for independent schools and higher education institutions. Jim has extensive experience planning and managing fundraising campaigns, evaluating current programs, defining successful donor strategies, working with governing boards, and identifying opportunities and solutions for growth.…