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How to Launch a Planned Giving Program

21 Steps to a Successful Planned Giving Program

This page is all about starting a planned giving program. If you want to learn how to market a planned giving program, read our 10 Simple Tips and Strategies on marketing planned gifts. And always remember: Planned giving is a people business, not a legal business.™

The information below is strictly copyrighted. If you wish to use it, PlannedGiving.Com must be cited as the source and the content must not be altered.


Understand the Basics of Planned Giving.

A little knowledge about planned giving goes a long way. You should know not just how it benefits your organization, but how it makes giving easier and, often, beneficial for your donor.

You do not have to understand CRUTs and CRATs, but you should know the general concept of planned giving as well as the basics of how each gift vehicle works. This last link is an immense resource for the newbie: It summarizes each gift planning vehicle along with a video,  and includes typical donor profile(s) for each gift type. A copy of our Ultimate Quick Reference Planned Giving Pocket Guide is a good start, too.

Remember that you are in the “people business” and not the legal business. Walk the talk — but there’s no need to become a legal or tax expert.

To start, we strongly suggest you focus on Beneficiary Designations, the “gifts anyone can make”:

  • Bequests
  • Appreciated Securities
  • Gifts of Life Insurance
  • Gifts of Retirement Plans
  • IRA Rollovers

Letting key players know is imperative.

In your next meeting with your board, let them know that you are now in the planned giving “business.” They will appreciate that, and you’d be surprised how much they will be willing to help. Usually board members come from the business world, so they understand the importance of long-term planning, money, and equity. And equity in the nonprofit world means endowment. (In our private lives it means retirement assets.)

Board members view philanthropy through a different prism.

Two useful tools include:


Build an Advisory Committee.

An advisory committee, if done right, is a key resource. This will be a team that will be your and your board’s backbone. Be selective — make sure they are all supportive and not joining the group because of ego.

The advisory committee is usually a team of people with “outside” knowledge… a different “prism” they see through. Consider having:

  • A business owner
  • A financial advisor who is charity minded
  • An attorney
  • A board member (who also sits on another board or has previous experience)


Let Your Loyal Donors Know Second.

Draft a simple letter to your most loyal donors. This is critical.

These donors are usually the ones who have given at least 8 years out of the last 12 or 15. Loyal donors are the ones who love your nonprofit. As a rule of thumb, they are about 5% to 12% of your donor base. For organizations this number can be much higher.

Make the letter personal, not institutional or salesy — as if you are writing to your mom.

Here’s an example of a “before and after.”


Establish a Legacy Society and Give it a Name.

Society Name

Make sure the name resonates and portrays emotion.

Develop a nice logo and establish standard guideline with colors, etc. This is called branding. If you are on a tight budget and doing this on your own, you can play graphic designer for a day and get your inspiration at istockphoto.com. In their search bar type in “logo ideas” followed by the concepts you are looking for (leaves, trees, puppies, babies, etc.). Make sure you have “images” selected in the search bar otherwise you’ll get too many irrelevant returns on your search results.

Once you have your name and logo in place, put together a brochure, preferably with a few donor stories. Do one online, too. Here are a few samples:

Your website is a hub.

Having planned giving pages summarizing essential planned gifts is a must. Start with beneficiary designations or a simple and inexpensive canned solution ($295/year) for the time being. Just get something up there.

As you grow, utilize our more robust and enterprise solutions for established programs.

We can go on and on for pages with the following suggestions, but your website should minimally have:

  • Donors with their stories.
  • Successful achievements.
  • Legacy Society information.
  • Membership registration.
  • Calendar of events.
  • Interactive giving matrix.
  • Simple gift descriptions.
  • Questions and Answers section.

If you are a relatively young program, do not worry about tools like planned giving calculators, etc. Even for mature programs, a planned giving calculator is rarely used.


Establish Gift Acceptance Policies.

This is where advice from a good advisory committee can be paramount.

Over time, legacy giving plans can get complicated and established programs for that reason have comprehensive gift acceptance policies. It keeps them out of trouble.

But for now, keep your policies simple — we recommend starting with Beneficiary Designations. Later, you can consider expanding. Will you accept Gifts of Real Estate? Life Income Gifts? If you’re an environmental organization, will you accept a piece of property with a condemned gas station on it? How about “tainted” gifts? How do you view or define them?

Again, over time, the gift plans you accept, and your policies around them, should all be spelled out. For now, start slow and just be cognizant of it. If you really need to formalize it now, Module II (Back Office Operations) of Planned Giving in a Box covers all of this step by step.

Here’s an example (PDF, free download) of a gift acceptance policy from one of our clients, Smith College.

Gift Acceptance Policies should serve as a guide only. You may need to offer a customized plan for a particular donor. And exceptions do always come up:

For example: You may not want to accept gifts of real estate at this time, but if a $4 million opportunity lands in your lap, you can always work with a professional facilitator to help. They will certainly receive a handsome cut — but then, so will your nonprofit. Or, another example, let’s say your “strict” age minimum for a Charitable Gift Annuity is 65. But Mrs. Johnson, 87, who is a yearly million-dollar giver, wants to give a birthday gift — a gift annuity in the amount of $500,000 — in the name of her daughter, 64.  Would you say no? This is why we, as a planned giving vendor, use terms like “suggested” in our marketing language.

These types of experiences (sometimes gut-wrenching) will push your limits. But rolling up your sleeves and getting the work done will hastily enhance your career.


Produce Basic Marketing Materials.

If you are a relatively new program, do not worry about tools like planned giving calculators, etc. Even for mature programs, a planned giving calculator is rarely used.

Here are some very basic materials you will need. There’s no need to complicate this.

  • Bequest brochure. Focus on bequests — the most popular gift. It is easy to begin here.
  • A simple email signature line that links to your website. It goes directly under your name. (For instance: Here’s a gift that costs nothing during your lifetime.) See an example on our planned giving marketing section (10 steps).
  • Include language on planned giving in all of your already existing outreach materials.
  • Simple mail stuffer.


Formalize the Program.

As you grow, make sure to take care of back-office operations and donor relations by formalizing your program.

For your convenience, all of the tools and forms you need are in Planned Giving in a Box or just Module II of The Box. (Module I contains a planned giving website and various outreach materials; Module III covers donor relations.)

Before you get The Box, use some of the free planned giving tools on this page.

We’ve seen many fail at their jobs by attempting to formalize their program before they begin their marketing efforts, and by spending too much of their time and financial resources on back office systems and operations. You need a balance between both.

Remember, your goal is to bring in the gifts, then worry about how to structure the deals. (If you’re the CFO of the organization, you can ignore this advice.)


Learn Prospect Identification.

Back Office Tools

Prospect identification is a science. If your budget permits, outsource this.

This could vary from one organization to the next, but in the majority of cases your best planned giving prospects are your most loyal donors.

A general rule of thumb: Your best prospects are those who have given at least 8 out of the last 12 to 15 years. This group has to be consistently targeted.

Do not mail to your entire list. The entire list should just be exposed to general marketing efforts (a display ad in your magazine, a blurb about planned giving in your alumni e-newsletter, etc.). Marketing to your entire list is one way of destroying your budget.


Donor Database.

Back Office Tools

Use some sort of a donor tracking system (donor management software).

Track donors’ ages, and when possible, their exact birthdays (they’ll appreciate a Happy Birthday note or postcard, and it keeps you top of mind).

Donor tracking systems track gifts, when, how often, etc. You can later use this information to see who your best prospects are. There are free donor tracking systems out there, but be cautious. Once you begin using a tracking system, you are practically married to it — it will be challenging to navigate to another one.

Here’s a quick 20 that come to mind.

Raiser’s Edge NXT
Planning Center
NetSuite for Nonprofits

Salsa CRM
Network for Good
Wild Apricot

Donor Tools
Virtuous CRM


Send Out a Thank-You Card to the Board.

Back Office Tools

Thank you cards, delivered via US Mail, can have a long-lasting impact.

This is best done on Thanksgiving. Thank your board sincerely, from the bottom of your heart. Take into account that not only are they helping your organization, they are indirectly contributing to your career.

Board members can be tough at times, at least the good, willing ones. There will always be disagreements, but the outcome of such peer-to-peer groups will have a greater impact. Sending them cards will also signal to them that you’re serious about your job.

If you notice that everyone on your board is always on the same page, that is not a good sign. You’ve collected too many like-minded people in the hopes that you always get a “yes.”

Taking a negotiation course will also help. Remember the saying: “You do not get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.” And make sure you understand the “science behind money” — boards think differently about money than fundraisers do.


Send Out Thank-You Cards to your Donors.

Back Office Tools

A thank you card has a different impact than an institutional acknowledgement. 

A sense of individual appreciation such as a personal thank-you goes a long way. Did you hear about the donor who removed you from her bequest because you didn’t even acknowledge her gift? You will when you realize you’re not getting that $2 million she promised you … always say thank you.

“But I don’t have time for all those thank you cards.”

  1. First, make the time.
  2. Second, have volunteers help you.

The 2nd also creates synergy, and volunteers may recognize donors on your mailing list and tell you things you were not aware of.


Make Planned Giving a Daily Habit.

Focus 15 to 30 minutes of your thoughts on planned giving a day.

It’s like brushing your teeth. No big effort required here, just make it a routine habit. Again, the free planned giving resources on this page will help.

By making it a habit, you will see opportunities arising right in front of you. Just make sure you have a marketing system (10 Strategies) in place first.  That should take you about 10 days to set up. Most of the resources in this marketing system will not incur any costs.


Planned Giving Seminars.

Back Office Tools

Offer planned giving educational events.

Do not center them on planned giving, however. Make them interesting events and interject how easy it is for donors to help. Showcase “Bob and Mary” and what they have done for your nonprofit. Have a board member speak… build peer pressure. We see this done effectively at many institutions.

Network with attorneys and advisors and see if they will make a presentation. They will actually welcome it (it’s a form of advertising, after all). Hold their presentations to 10 to 15 minutes. Avoid the dull and dry — look for outgoing types. The last thing you want is to bore your donors and prospects. Also, make sure your presenters cover topics useful for donors (like Estate Planning; Succession Planning; etc.)

Make an agreement that they will not turn their speech into a sales presentation.


It’s Not About Money.

Back Office Tools

Let donors know that planned giving is not about money (PDF, free download).

Planned giving is about credibility and legitimacy. When you have a planned giving program in place, cash giving will follow, naturally. Why? Because donors see you are investing in the future of your organization.

Planned giving builds trust and credibility. And that makes you look more fiscally legitimate.


Donor Testimonials and Stories

Ask for testimonials and donor stories. Always.

Donor testimonials motivate others to give, and often generate second-time gifts. We learned this in 1998 from Adam Corson-Finnerty at the University of Pennsylvania. And donor stories are among the most powerful philanthropic marketing tools we have at our disposal. Donor stories put a human face on the process of giving, and inspire prospects to give as well, because they identify with those who have become donors.

Often, donors will delay getting you their story. It’s not a priority and they have other things to do. Here are three tips to expedite them:

If a donor mentions they are reluctant because they do not want to boast, here are two good answers:

  • You know, Jane, your story will motivate your friends to give.
  • Don’t feel that way at all, Jane. We’ll edit your story so well that it will convey that it is truly coming from your heart.

You will always have that rare exception where the donor simply says no. But then, they may change their mind when they see peers online one day.

This entire process strengthens the bond between you, the donor, and your constituency. It’s a win-win.


Learn the Planned Giving Dialog.

Some simple pointers:

  • Know your elevator pitches by heart. Our Pocket Guide has them all.
  • These conversation starters (PDF, free download) will help.
  • Get fluent with the terminology — it takes a little practice, but it’s worth it.
  • Read “people books” and not books on CRUTs, CRATs, and the Generation Skipping Tax.
  • Treat your donors as friends and your prospects like donors.


Let Donors Know Where Their Money Will Go.

Most donors want to know how their money will be used. Some will want to direct it toward certain programs or areas of your nonprofit. This is critical to address in your future marketing efforts. Your gift acceptance policies will also help.


Belong to a Peer Group.

This is the fun part.

Network with a few nonprofits in the area to see what they are doing. Engage some that are smaller than yours, and some that are larger. An easy way to meet peers is to go to regular meetings held by (just to name a few):

  • AFP (general/across the board fundraisers)
  • NACGP (more focused on major and planned gifts)
  • CASE (higher education)
  • NAIS (private schools)
  • AHP (healthcare philanthropy)


Future Solutions.

Make plans for the following, or lay the groundwork for your successor: