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How to Market Planned Gifts

10 Simple Tips and Strategies

This page covers how to market planned gifts. If you’re looking for ideas on how to launch a planned giving program (or a refresher), then read our 21 tips by Viken Mikaelian. If you wish to learn how the gift vehicles work, then visit this page — along with brief descriptions of each gift type, included are videos and typical donor profiles. All in simple, plain English.

To start your planned giving marketing program, you’ll need to do three things:

  1. Learn the importance of planned giving (if you’re a client, you already do) and develop a 12-month planned giving marketing plan.
  2. Love people.
  3. Communicate well. This also means working your message into your existing outreach materials.

Next, a copy our Planned Giving Pocket Guide would not hurt (make sure you have the latest; free for clients). Reading What is Planned Giving would be a good idea, too, as well as some of the challenges your peers are facing right now.

These pages cover the most common problems and solutions nonprofits face with marketing planned gifts. Our downloads and tools are resources that will help you as well.

Just remember: Planned giving is a people business. If you love people, you’ll raise more money than you have ever imagined.™ And it’s good for your career, too.

Questions? Please contact us at 800-490-7090.

1. Your Own Internal Resources

You have a limited budget but you need to do some serious outreach.

There is no better way to market planned giving than using your existing internal media. This is true for all nonprofits, from the large state university to the small hometown hospice. And most of this marketing costs nothing. So make sure you have some sort of a message in your:

  • Newsletters
  • Digital outreach
  • Facebook
  • Annual report
  • Stationery (tagline at the bottom of your letterhead and business card)
  • Signature lines* (place an elevator pitch below your name, not your address, that links to a specific page)
  • Voicemail (yes; people do this after mentioning to hit # to leave a message)
  • A simple letter to your key constituents and board

What to say? Begin with a small display ad and short elevator pitches wherever you can squeeze them. (“A gift that costs nothing during your lifetime.”)

Here’s a white paper that covers this in more detail.

*See right column. A typical email signature line such as “Visit us at the Foundation” will never get clicked. So use our compelling email signature lines (or write your own) and make sure everyone in your office uses them in their email correspondence. Place these lines (we call them “elevator pitches”) between your name and address, not way below your address. Have each line link to a specific page on your planned giving website. Get creative with these lines and have some fun: Make a gift that costs nothing during your lifetime; Giving stock could be more beneficial than giving cash; You can donate your home, get a deduction, and continue to live there for life; Make a gift and receive guaranteed income for life.

2. Direct Mail or Junk Mail?

Your direct mail is beginning to look like junk mail.

Sorry, but it is. No matter how creative you get, no matter how hard you try to get your juices flowing, your mailers are still junk mail… to your prospects.

“Junk Mail” works. Avoid being too critical of your work or trying to ensure each and every piece you send out is perfect. Nothing is perfect. You get opinions and advice, and you re-write stuff 20 times over until it is “right.” Then, you give it to a tenured professor who knows nothing about marketing, and he re-writes it in perfect English until it’s vanilla. You finally mail it…after you’ve blown three deadlines and missed phone calls from eight prospects.

Nothing happens. Worse? Not even a complaint. If you send out 10,000 planned giving brochures and do not hear at least 100 complaints, your mailers are going right into the trash. Sorry for the honesty, but it’s true.

Two things you should do:

  1. Hire a professional writer and designer and follow their advice. Do not use internal resources (we already showed you the problem with that route). You need a gift planning marketing partner with fresh eyes (like us). Internal resources are great for your annual report, admission bulletin and standard communications. But for a set of fresh eyes on your planned giving marketing materials, get an outsider. Make sure the copy has punch and emotion. As to the designer? Make sure he has a marketing eye, not an award-winning design eye with a fat ego. We’ve seen some of the ugliest direct mail pieces outperform award-winning designs.
  2. Mail often. One time shots do not work. One time shots do not work. (Did we just say that twice?) Yes, one time shots do not work. Here’s why: your competition is not the nonprofit next door. It’s your prospect’s cat who pooped on the rug; niece who is getting married; husband who is ill; brother-in-law who just won $10,000 in the lottery; the Mercedes-Benz sales-person who called when your mailing piece arrived with a great deal; and the bingo tournament coming up. Yes, your prospect has a life, and your marketing postcard just arrived in the mail along with coupons and bills. Need we say more? Mail more often, so your chances of “getting them” at the right time happens. It’s simply a numbers game that eventually fills your marketing funnel.

3. The Planned Giving Newsletter

Your boss or someone on your board is pushing you to do a planned giving newsletter promoting planned gifts, and you have heard and know in your gut that planned giving newsletters are ineffective and passé. This happens over and over again. Even worse, you have a friend at the nonprofit next door and a vendor pushing you to do a planned giving newsletter.

Just say no unless you have the resources to do it right. Even then, is the ROI worth it? Let them know reputable consultants advise against it. Explain this to your team:

  1. A good planned giving newsletter takes a huge amount of resources. To do it right, either a significant amount of money has to be spent with a reputable gift planning marketing vendor, or it must be done in-house. The latter is preferred.
  2. If you’re thinking of doing a newsletter, make it a year-end donor newsletter, mailed between Christmas and New Years so it arrives the first week of January, covering the year before.
  3. The problem with the latter is you may not have internal resources. Newsletters take time and effort, and your job is to call or meet with prospects or create your planned gift marketing campaign. Your job is not to write newsletter copy. The donor newsletter is usually the job of Marketing and Communications.
  4. The standard planned giving newsletters offered by gift planning marketing vendors today are the same products they were offering in the 80s. Why have they not changed? Because to do newsletters right costs more, and most nonprofits do not have the budget to pay them for fresh ideas and copy.
  5. What to do? Use your resources for multiple touches instead by using planned giving postcards, gift plan brochures and solicitation letters combined with digital outreach. New and better ways exist.
  6. Another option is a well-designed, well-produced monthly one-pager. If you do not skip issues and have interesting content, you’ll get good results.
  7. The resources required for one traditional planned giving newsletter (now considered an item from the Mesozoic Era) can create 4 other multiple touches. The more touches the better according to the Direct Mail Association — DMA (that’s Marketing 101!).

Remember the friend from the friend from the nonprofit next door with three enamored board members who are having an ego trip over a single planned giving newsletter? The one who is also blindly ignoring 98% of their constituency? Don’t let him fool you. It’s easy to get entangled within your closed loop.

Red: The Definitive Guide to Planned Giving Newsletters.

4. Planned Giving Solicitation Letters

These can also be considered junk mail unless they are done right. And most envelopes from the outside cry junk mail.

Here are some ideas:

  1. If it’s just a letter, keep it at that. No enclosures. Studies show enclosures take away from your main message.
  2. Make sure it bears a real signature. Ask volunteers to help. By the way, asking volunteers to help also creates comradery.
  3. A live stamp is a must. There are mail houses that do this.
  4. No labels. Either laser-print the envelopes, or use handwriting. There’s a new technology where an actual pen “hand” addresses each envelope, and no two letters look alike. It’s cool and different than a script font. It really looks like a person wrote it!
  5. Handwrite your initials (or the signer’s initials) on the top left hand corner of the envelope. Use blue ink.
  6. Write the letter yourself, and give it to your communications person to edit. Then, hire an outside professional copywriter with direct response marketing experience. Do not:
    • Ask your uncle’s opinion (unless he is a marketing expert)
    • Ask an attorney to edit it
    • Ask a professor to re-write it
    • Ask your staff’s opinion
    • Ask more people to get involved. Doing this makes the writing more vanilla, which appeases the masses. And that’s simply not doable. Your job is to tease. Never appease.

5. Gift Planning Digital Outreach

Your boss is shouting “budget, budget, budget” and pushing you to use electronic communications for your outreach. Save paper and stamps, he says.

We once received an annual report that asked the reader to go online to download a list of donors who supported the organization. Pooh. Let the reader go online and download P&L statements and fancy financial bar charts, but donor names should come in print. One of our clients, a school in Dallas, begins their donor list on the cover of its magazine. Not on page 82 in 8-point type. On the cover!

Educate your boss with these pointers:

  1. Promoting planned gifts via digital outreach is not as cost-effective as people think. It has to be done right. And done right is more than pressing a send button.
  2. Along with the digital outreach, you need a planned giving website with landing pages that collect information and feed it to a database. This costs money.
  3. On your planned giving website landing pages, you need an offer.
  4. To do it right, you need a planned giving website vendor who knows A/B split testing (and maybe even A/B/C split testing, depending on how large your list is and how critical you are).
  5. Your first broadcast should be to a small group to analyze responses. Then, rethink your approach.
  6. Before doing anything, make sure the analytics for your planned giving website are in place.
  7. Test, test, test. We have seen emails go out with: Dear {name}…
  8. Learn about spam controls. Several innocent words could send your message into the spam box.
  9. Hire a planned giving partner. Again, it’s more than just pressing a send button.
  10. Are you regulated heavily? Be careful. Although not heavily enforced, there are anti-spam rules you need to abide by, such as opt-ins, etc.
  11. Digital outreach should be part of an integrated, multi-channel planned giving marketing solution. It’s not a good stand-alone tool. We can’t emphasize this enough.
  12. Digital outreach should be part of an integrated, multi-channel planned giving marketing solution. It’s not a good stand-alone tool. We can’t emphasize this enough. It’s worth saying it twice.

6. Media Sources

You’ve followed what others are doing: gift planning direct mail, postcards and solicitation letters. Great. But you know there are other venues you should tap into but just can’t think of any.

Here are some ideas. Perhaps not all are suited for you, but this is a good start:

  1. Local small papers. Call them. Often they are in need of stories as they run out of things to publish. Make sure to represent an interesting angle of what you do. Don’t say “Our nonprofit helps children stay out of trouble.” Say, “Local businesses support our nonprofit by giving gifts of stock because they know that our current generation will be their future employees.”
  2. Local larger papers. Again, follow advice in #1, but you may need a gift planning marketing partner. And it helps to place a display ad in the paper or magazine. One of our clients, Pomona College, advertises in the Wall Street Journal for charitable gift annuities. Okay, you’re not there yet, but could advertise about bequests in your regional paper. Keep your eyes open. This practice works well for universities and colleges.
  3. Short internal video clips. This practice does not work for all, but is popular with retirement communities and animal shelters.
  4. Write to NPR. The station loves to talk about other nonprofits. In fact, if you educate yourself on planned giving topics, you could be asked to educate its constituency about gifts of life insurance or lifetime income gifts. The station realizes your knowledge may eventually help its fundraising as well.

7. Leave-Behind Gift Plan Brochures

Say you have been doing bequest marketing heavily, and people start requesting information. You have nothing to send out.

The solution to your bequest marketing (or any planned giving marketing) dilemma is easy. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Order quick, easy-to-produce, off-the-shelf planned giving brochures. You do not need award-winning, beautifully designed publications here. Just simple pieces with your name, your logo and your colors. Work with a gift planning marketing partner. In fact, you can get planned giving brochures today.
  2. Estate Planning Brochures. Considering 50% of Americans do not have an estate plan, our estate planning brochures are great leave-behind pieces.
  3. Cornerstone Brochures. These are for sophisticated programs and for those “special donors.”

8. Establish an Online Presence

Whether you are marketing remainder trusts and unitrusts or simple beneficiary designations, consider having a planned giving website.

Your prospects need to understand that a deferred gift annuity helps them save for retirement and support your mission. Or that a charitable bargain sale is the only gift planning tool that gives you a lump sum of cash and a charitable tax deduction. Or whether to even consider gifts of real estate as a smart move for their situation.

You’ve tried to create a planned giving website yourself and discovered it looks lame compared to other nonprofit sites. You wonder why? It’s the difference between getting your car washed and getting it detailed. It’s the difference between a simple shirt and one that’s tailored. It’s the difference between an apple pie from the grocery store and the one your grandma made.

Then you realize the websites you like were created by a planned giving website partner such as PlannedGiving.Com, and you think that you can’t afford it.

Can’t afford a website? Look at our microsites for the small charity.

We provide customized planned giving websites that speak to prospects. Yes, we work with the Harvards of the world and deliver high-end products. But we also specialize with smaller shops and deliver exceptional affordable products as well.


Because our mission is to support you and your mission. Whether you are a large university, a small private college, an animal shelter or a zoo, we can create an appropriate, affordable planned giving website that meets your specific needs.

If you are still hesitating to move forward with a planned giving website, at least place our gift plan audio files on your giving pages. You can get these audio files for free, here.

9. Linking to Your Online Presence

You have a planned giving website. Great. But you have no visitors.

It’s amazing how many clients complain to us that no one is visiting their planned giving website we created.

Imagine if your boss says, “We just got this great phone system, but no one is calling us! We need to get a better system.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

Phone systems are taken for granted as they have been around for 100 years. Planned giving websites are much newer. But they work the same way. You need to:

  1. Market your planned giving website with print and electronic mail.
  2. Have the URL in every internal resource, gift planning brochure, bequest marketing material and any publication you have promoting planned gifts.
  3. Have an elevator pitch and a link in as many planned gift marketing resources as possible. For elevator pitches see our Pocket Guide.
  4. Have donor stories linking to your website. Tell how “Judy” met her personal planning goals and supported your mission by creating a charitable remainder trust. Or how a pooled income fund worked for “William” by delivering him lifetime income. Or how “Elizabeth” has established multiple grants through her donor-advised fund. Make sure you have emotional stories like this one.
  5. Have display ads linking to it.

Sound like a lot of work? Not really. The good news is that once all of the above is done, it will all be on autopilot. Are you a small shop? We can help. Consider Beneficiary Designations Toolkit – it covers all of this and more.

10. Ground Presence & Voicemail

This is a simple, esoteric tip, so we kept it for last.

You have a small nonprofit with a lot of foot traffic and zero budget. This applies to only a handful of nonprofits, so feel free to skip this step if that’s not you.

We’ve already covered what you can do with zero budget. Now, here’s a simple, powerful tool for a handful of nonprofits that has proven to work. It’s so simple, so cheap and so “stupid” that it is easy to overlook.

Assume you are a retirement community. You have a dining room, possibly a few.

Invest $75 at Staples or Office Depot, and create a nice-sized easel with a nice-sized, foam-core sign with large type that reads:

  1. Make a Gift and Receive a Guaranteed Paycheck for Life.
  2. Do you have CD’s earning 0.7% interest? We can give you up to 8%.

Do not junk up the signs with disclaimers and qualifiers as attorneys recommend. That’s a downhill slope. Just whet people’s appetites. You can discuss the details later.

People, especially seniors, love receiving a guaranteed paycheck for life. We’ve heard of some donors who have established multiple charitable gift annuities.

Whether you are teaching your prospects about bequests, gifts of life insurance or gifts of stock, simple marketing like this can attract interest and lead to more gift planning.

How About Your Voicemail?

A friend of ours at St. Mary’s University has a voicemail that goes, “Hi this is Mike. To leave a message, press the # key. Did you know you can make a gift to St. Mary’s with a gift that costs nothing during your lifetime? Here’s how it works …”


  1. Your Own Internal Resources
    The biggest bang for your buck.
  2. Junk Mail
    Or, as we politely call it, Planned Giving Direct Mail.
  3. The Planned Giving Newsletter
    Ho-hum. Forget it.
  4. Planned Giving Solicitation Letters
    Not so junk… but still.
  5. Gift Planning Digital Outreach
    We’re being out-spammed! What can we do?
  6. Media Sources
    Newspapers and billboards still do the trick.
  7. Leave Behind Gift Plan Brochures
    A necessary evil.
  8. Establish an Online Presence
    A planned giving website is a 24/7 brochure.
  9. Linking to Your Online Presence
    Link, link, link. Otherwise, you won’t be found.
  10. Ground Presence & Voicemail
    Do you have foot traffic? Here’s what to do.

Will This Get Opened?

An actual piece sent to my dad 2 years ago.

  • Handwritten
  • Live stamp
  • Smear on the envelope
  • Stamp slightly on an angle

Everything says it was done by hand. Of course it got opened. And read. Clever.

Signature Lines Are Boring

Don’t make them worse.Note how the signature line is prominent on the right with an elevator pitch. Get your message across first, not your address.  Your donor knows your address.

Solicitation Letters

Solicitation letters can get boring, too. But they don’t have to.

Use a freelance writer with a fresh eye. Those with advertorial experience are best.

(Download before and after sample.)