The Legacy Your Donors Want to Leave

Not long ago, a friend of mine came to me with a different kind of problem.  All throughout her marriage, she and her late husband felt a strong obligation to ensure that their two sons would have a good inheritance. While they didn’t exactly scrimp, they definitely saved.  All to the good; they were easily able to ensure their sons went to excellent universities, and were able to pay for one of the sons’ graduate education.

Those investments paid off. Both her sons are doing extremely well. Frankly, extremely doesn’t quite hit the mark.  One son invented an app that he sold for mega millions and has gone on to open businesses that he manages to sell for a really nice amount.  The other is the CEO of a company that pays him millions a year.

Clearly, these boys don’t need the modest inheritance their parents have put away.

So what, my friend, asked me, should she do with the money?

Sure, she could travel more than she does; she could buy a second home and/or remodel her first. She could go out every night…..but none of these things are really of any interest.  And, of course, she could ensure that her final years—whatever her health situation—are comfortable.  But, she said, there has to be more.

Never ask a fundraiser that question!

What, I asked her, would she like her legacy to be?  And I told her the story a client had shared with me several years before.

This client learned that they were one of seven beneficiaries of a long-time donor’s estate.  During this donor’s lifetime, the gifts he made were at best what I would call mid-level for this organization.  His estate gift, however, was quite large.

Being a good development officer, she reached out to the donor’s family offering condolences and thanks for the wonderful legacy their husband and father had left.  She invited the family to the organization to see what they were up to now and to talk about how this wonderful gift would make a difference.

At that meeting, one of the donor’s sons told her that the reading of his dad’s will turned a very sad occasion into something of a celebration.  “Through my father’s bequests,” he said, “we were reminded of my father’s values.  And we were all comforted by the fact that his values, and his passions, would live on.”

My friend was silent for a moment, then nodded.
“Yes,” she said.  “That would be a much better inheritance for my sons and grandchildren.  And it would help organizations that do work I care about.

My friend is now in what I call her discovery phase.  She knows the issues that move her—now she wants to find the organizations that she can be passionate about.  She wants to leave a legacy for sure, but she has also realized that she wants much more. Her legacy will allow her to be part of the organization’s tomorrow; she wants to also be involved today.

What’s she is looking for—and this is the lesson those of you who work at and with a nonprofit need to take to heart—is not just a cause but a culture.  An organization that recognizes the importance of what they do, who they do it for, and those whose generosity of time and talent and treasure allows them to be the very best they can.

One of the first places she approached was a national organization she has supported modestly for many years.

“I guess, “she told me sadly, “my generosity over these many years wasn’t big enough for them to notice or to care about.”  It wasn’t that they were rude; just disinterested.  They didn’t bother to learn who she was, how long she had been donating, or what she cared about.  They spent the visit she set up pitching a program to her, never finding out if this was something she would even want to support.  Worse, they never even asked a thing about her.

Alas, this hasn’t turned out to be an anomaly.  “So few of these organizations take the time to learn anything about me,” she complained at lunch the other day.  “Not one has asked me why I support them; who else I give to; what I want to accomplish when I give.”

I know.  I see too many organizations focused on learning their elevator speech; honing their solicitation methods; caring only about a person’s capacity to make a big gift right now.  They ignore loyalty, caring, a passion for what they do.  And in doing that, they don’t just leave a lot of money on the table, they lose donors whose lifetime commitment would turn into a legacy that could easily transform their organization.  And they push away those whose passion for their cause and their organization could ignite many others to join with them in making the difference we should all be helping them to make.

I hope that I am preaching to the choir here.  That you are all nodding your heads, saying, “Yes, I know that.  We DO it right.”  Alas, I fear that too many of you are nodding your heads thinking ruefully,  We do focus on capacity and don’t fine out what matters to our donors.  We do memorize our pitch, and give it regardless of what the donor wants to discuss.

And if you are, I hope this starts you thinking about how you can change that culture and become an organization that excites your donors, and partners with them to create the world you both want to see.

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