The language that gets you gifts in wills

First, you may ask, is it the direct marketer’s job to get legacy gifts?  After all, that’s a different person in a different department who sits a few offices away from me, back when we had offices.  And I worry if I ask for bequest gifts, I’ll shoot myself in the foot, because people won’t want to give current gifts.

Au contraire, mon petit vache!  (I don’t speak French…)  As recent research from Dr. Russell James III shows, giving goes up after someone designates a gift.  Significantly:



There are also wonderful direct marketing tactics (all from Dr. James’s Inside the Mind of a Bequest Donor, which I recommend if you are interested in this) you can deploy to get more bequest gifts.

First, don’t call them bequest gifts.  James tested asking people if they wanted to make a bequest gift to charity; 12% were interested.  And he asked them if they wanted to make a gift in their will to charity; 23% were interested.

Yes, they are synonyms.  But not in the mind of the donor.  A will is a protective document you have for some far-off future.  A bequest is a legalistic term that literally talks about the moment that a person will die.  I’ll let you hypothesize as to whether people are more turned off by the reminder of death or of lawyers.  Either way, you can almost double a person’s likelihood of interest in a bequest gift by talking about it as a gift in your will.

Similarly, “make a gift” won out over “make a transfer of assets” when it introed the benefits of making a will gift, 27% to 14% (the percent who were immediately interested).  And “make a gift” whooped “enter into a contract with a charity where you transfer your cash or property” when used to intro a charitable gift annuity 29% to 13%.  Simple language is better, even when discussing legal structures.

James also looked at how the gap could be closed between those who are interested in making a charitable gift and those who would be interested in making a gift in their will.  Left to their own devices, there was a 10.2-percentage-point gap between these two.

So he tested four different techniques:

– Spendthrift heirs: statistics showing how rapidly heirs typically spend inheritance from academic research
– Social norms information: include information that it is common for Americans to leave 5% or 10% to charity and survey results that indicate people agree with this concept
– Stories of bequests from deceased people
– Stories of bequests planned from living people

Which of these work? All of them.  Here’s the tale of the tape:

– No language: 10.2% gap
– Spendthrift heirs: 9.4% gap
– Social norms: 8.8% gap
– Heirs + social norms: 8.0% gap
– Deceased bequest stories: 6.7%
– Living bequest stories: 4.4%

Not only were living bequest stories most effective, but living stories also beat a mix of living and deceased stories.

So now you know a few tactics for getting planned gifts in your direct marketing.  Now’s the time to deploy them to make friends with that planned giving officer a few doors down.

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