Uncomfortable thinking about bequests?

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Discomfort with engaging donors on bequests says more about your feelings about death than anything else.

My mother died 11 years ago, almost exactly a year to the date after her mother, my grandmother, died. Within the next five years, my uncle and three aunts would all sadly succumb to various forms of cancer, and in one tragic case, alcoholism. It was a desperately sad time in the lives of all my family members. As funeral after funeral took place, grief moved into our homes, occupying a large place at the head of the table. We learned to live with its presence, how to negotiate the tinge of sadness that inflected much of what we did; how we celebrated, how we experienced joy, how we made new friends and interacted with old ones.

But our grief didn’t destroy us. Not even close. If anything, we became closer and stronger. We developed a capacity for empathy that we didn’t have before. We found kindness was in larger supply. As low as our lows had been, we found new heights of happiness that exceeded everything we had known before.

It helped that my mother was a psychologist who did a lot of work with bereaved families - particularly in the years after September 11th, when the small New Jersey town where she lived reeled at the loss of so many moms, dads, sons, daughters and friends who just never came home that day.

She prepared us for this onslaught of familial loss by never shying away from conversations about death, loss, sadness. She was fond of saying that death doesn’t end a relationship; it merely transforms it.

If you’re a professional fundraiser, or an Executive Director, you’re probably aware of the potential of bequests as a revenue source. However you may not be aware that only 7% of Canadians leave a gift in their wills. Part of the reason why this percentage is so low, is that it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. Culturally speaking, death is a deeply held taboo. Though it, like taxes, is one of life’s few certainties, speaking about death carries an air of superstition, as though invoking its name will alert the grim reaper to your presence.

The donors who are most invested in your organization are likely people who you know fairly well. There’s undoubtedly a familiarity between you and them. You know when their birthday is, you know what colour wine they prefer, you have a pretty good sense of their values, hopes and aspirations. Knowing these things, is what makes you good at your job. So why don’t you know about their aspirations for their legacy?

We already speak about legacy when we speak to our donors about making gifts to our organizations. We tell them about the impact that their gift will have. Talking about bequests is the same conversation, just amplified.

A good way to start the conversation could be to ask them about their parents or grandparents (if they have already passed away). Ask them to talk about the impact these folks had on their lives, or the lives of their kids. The conversation can then flow naturally to asking the donor to think about what they most want to be remembered for. Let your donor come to their own reflection process with you acting as the guide.

Another positive way to start the conversation is to encourage them to tell you about who they think of when they’re asked to reflect on influential Canadians of the last generation. They’ll be delighted to tell you about the personalities that have intrigued and inspired them. You can then begin to steward them into imagining how the next generation will think of them.

Talk to your charity peers about their experiences of bequests that had a significant impact on their organization. Use those anecdotes to tell the story of the impact of a bequest to effect important mission-related work. This will help your donor imagine the way that their own gift could make a big difference.

If you have a donor who is very comfortable and receptive to thinking about bequests, consider asking them to accompany you to speak with other donors. They are the best advocates for making a bequest as they have already made the commitment to their legacy and to your organization.

These are just a couple of ways to begin to talk about bequests without having to feel as though you are having a heavy conversation about death and loss.

Think again about the possibility for transformation that death offers a relationship. A donor who gave modestly, but consistently throughout their life, has an opportunity, in death, to significantly increase that impact. The relationship between the donor and the organization has not ended, rather it has been enriched.

And that enrichment can begin before the donor has passed away. As your conversation with them about legacy evolves into the “hows” and “whens” of making a bequest, come prepared to discuss how your organisation will honor them now, not just later. That could be creating a special pin for them to wear at events, or using a plaque prominently placed in a high-traffic area of your organization. When your donor passes away and the gift matures, make sure that the family is honoured on the plaque as well.

Being an effective champion for bequests also means being able to be present for the families of the donors who pass on. If the idea of being with and speaking to people who are mourning the loss of a loved one makes you nervous, I’d encourage you to start talking about loss with your friends and family. Become comfortable with the topic by working out your nerves and potential sadness in a safe space.

Talking about bequests doesn’t have to be awkward. It can be part of a larger dialogue about what constitutes a life well-lived. When you yourself begin to embrace the end as part of the richness of the human experience, you’ll find an ease in the way you can lead your donors through the same reflections.

Aine McGlynn is the Chief Operating Officer at The Good Partnership. The Good Partnership helps small charities and nonprofits evolve their fundraising in a way that feels good. We do everything from strategy and planning to hands-on implementation. We focus on fundraising so you can focus on changing the world. Download your free fundraising template today!

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