How to start a planned giving program: Step-by-step guide

February 12, 2024
min read
How to start a planned giving program: Step-by-step guide

With the right approach and goals, any nonprofit can start a planned giving program. Planned giving is how donors make charitable contributions from financial or estate plans. It's also known as deferred or legacy giving. A planned giving program is the process by which your nonprofit finds, solicits, and stewards planned giving donors.

With an average planned gift donation size of over $46,500, planned giving programs are how organizations invest in their future. Large organizations have the resources to invest in robust programs with dedicated teams of gift officers, while smaller organizations can launch a program by devoting a few hours to it each week. 

Large or small, here’s how your organization can jump-start your program.

1. Understand how planned giving works.

Before you start a planned giving program, read a planned giving guide. This will help you learn the different types of planned gifts, how donors can make them, and why they're important to your nonprofit. For a brief overview, we will answer a few core questions about planned giving here. 

What are planned gifts?

Planned gifts are donations made through donors’ estate or financial plans, and they help secure the futures of the nonprofit organizations that receive them. They allow nonprofits to plan ahead and budget for years to come. However, nonprofits don't immediately receive the money from most planned gifts. Instead, the gift is planned in the present with the intent to be given at some later date. That's why they're often considered "future gifts."

Bequests, which are gifts left in a will, make up every nine out of ten planned gifts. These are distributed to nonprofits after the donor passes away. Bequests are the easiest way for donors to make a planned gift and the primary type of planned gift your organization should focus on. All a donor has to do to make this type of planned gift is name your nonprofit as a beneficiary of part of their estate in their will.

What is a planned giving program?

A planned giving program is the dedicated set of strategies and processes that a nonprofit uses to secure and steward planned gifts from its donors.

Planned giving programs exist to track planned gifts and steward nonprofits’ relationships with these donors. This ensures donors commit to a planned gift and that the nonprofit remains in the donors' wills. Platforms like FreeWill make it easy for your donors to create bequests and for your nonprofit to keep track of them over time.

Why should nonprofits have dedicated planned giving strategies?

Planned giving represents a major opportunity for nonprofit organizations to secure their futures. When efficiently pursued through a planned giving program, planned giving has one of the highest ROIs of all fundraising types.

Beyond the opportunity in sheer dollar amounts, there are many other benefits of planned giving as well. For nonprofits, planned gifts are accessible to a wide range of donors and tend to lead to increased annual giving. For donors, planned gifts allow them to leave a legacy and support the causes they care about without feeling the financial impact in their lifetime.

Who should lead your planned giving program?

Several different individuals may step up to lead a new planned giving program, but the key is to ensure that there is a clear leader who takes responsibility for the program. For large nonprofits, planned giving can be part of an established development or major gifts program. For smaller nonprofits, an experienced fundraiser with enough time to devote to planned giving can make a great program leader.

As you get started, you may need to attain leadership buy-in to get support for your planned giving program. When discussing planned gifts, be sure to emphasize their long-term pay-off and the potential financial gains. For instance, the Baby Boomer generation will pass on an estimated $68 trillion in the next 25 years, creating an unprecedented opportunity for nonprofits to tap into planned gifts.

What do you do once you've established a planned giving program?

To help your nonprofit establish a planned giving program, use this checklist as you follow through the rest of this guide:

This planned giving checklist covers all the steps of starting a planned giving program as discussed above.

Once your planned giving program is up and running, you’ll start the ongoing processes of 1) promoting it to donors, 2) tracking planned gifts over time to measure your progress toward goals, and 3) stewarding your relationships with planned donors. When made into a regular part of your routine, these three tasks will help ensure the success of your program.

2. Allocate responsibility, time, and resources to your planned giving program.

Once you've decided to start a planned giving program, you need to choose who will be responsible for it.

Even if your organization can’t hire a dedicated gift officer and wants to get several people involved, someone should take the lead role. This will streamline communication and ensure that everyone stays on the same page. Your organization should also decide where planned giving fits within its existing infrastructure. It may fall under the purview of the annual, major gifts, or another fundraising team.

Wherever responsibility sits, it’s important to align the development and communications teams on the purpose and value of your planned giving program. Doing this will help you allocate the right amount of time and resources to it. Development and communications should decide together on how often they want to market planned giving, how they want to frame it to supporters, and who will create and maintain materials like the program's website.

For example, the planned giving program lead may be in charge of creating email copy to market the program, and the communications team can then point out key moments for soliciting these gifts.

3. Find prospects for your planned giving program.

To start or grow a planned giving program, you need to know who to market it to. One approach is to promote it to all supporters, such as by listing bequests as a donation method on your “Ways to Give” page or including it as a postscript in a regular fundraising email.

However, for best results, you should narrow your search to prospects that have shown a demonstrated dedication to your cause. This might include board members, volunteers, and donors who regularly submit matching gifts.

For your donor base, use donor profiles to identify your top planned giving prospects by:

  • Researching prospects and long-time major or annual donors to see if they have the traits of a planned giving donor.
  • Discovering donors who regularly show increased levels of engagement. For example, a donor who takes the additional steps of going through the matching gift process may indicate they would be willing to make future larger gifts even if they lack the financial capacity to do so at this moment. 
  • Surveying supporters to find any donors who have already made bequests or are interested in learning more about planned giving.
  • Creating donor profiles for your prospects and segmenting them into lists for outreach.

As your program gets more sophisticated and collects more data, segment your prospects even further to focus your resources on cultivating the most valuable prospects. Testing and tailoring your messaging to each group can help your nonprofit build stronger relationships faster, leading to more of these gifts.

The SMART method is an effective way to set goals when starting a planned giving program from your nonprofit.

4. Set goals for your planned giving program.

Use the SMART method to set attainable goals for what you want to achieve with your planned giving program, and decide what success looks like for it. It can take a while to get a donor to commit to a planned gift, especially if you’re meeting with top prospects. Therefore, you may want to set both qualitative and quantitative goals, such as:

  • Number of planned gifts that donors commit
  • Number of identified and qualified prospects
  • Scheduled one-on-one meetings with top prospects
  • Amount in planned gifts your organization will receive this year
  • Number of calls made to planned giving prospects or donors

Focus your goals on actionable items. Base them on your number of prospects and the time and resources you have to dedicate to your program. Create an annual plan for your goals, and then break it down into quarterly and monthly chunks. This will make tracking your progress and reporting on the results easier.

5. Start your legacy society.

Nonprofit teams often use 'planned giving' as an internal term. Outwardly, many organizations call these programs legacy societies. A legacy society member is usually anyone who makes a planned gift. Legacy societies allow nonprofits to welcome donors and make them feel like a part of a special community.

The first step to starting your legacy society is to choose a name. Many organizations just call it “[Organization Name] Legacy Society.” Others may choose a historical figure, an inspiring phrase, or their founding date. For example, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention calls it their “Legacy of Hope Society.”

Then decide what you want to offer to your legacy society members. It could be as simple as recognizing your legacy donors in an annual report or brochure. You could also make your society more dynamic by offering a range of perks. These often include invitations to special donor events or complimentary newsletter subscriptions.

6. Outline your planned giving marketing plan.

Once you finalize the details for your planned giving program, you can outline your plan to market it. This will most likely be a cross-team effort with your communications or marketing department. Work together to cover these three essential components of a planned giving outreach strategy:

Follow these steps to begin marketing your planned giving program to donors.

Create your marketing materials.

Create a one-page document that explains all of the benefits planned gifts bring donors, such as tax advantages, program society benefits, and the ability to establish a legacy. Use this one-pager as a guide for other marketing materials, such as a press release, your website, email, and social media. 

Many nonprofits also create dedicated planned giving microsites or standalone sets of pages that explain these gifts to simplify the process of promoting their programs over time. By giving your planned giving and other non-cash giving options a central digital home, you have the space to answer questions, provide resources, and collect information from potential donors.

Start marketing your new planned giving program by creating a central donor-facing resource that explains its benefits.

Add planned giving as a donation option on your website.

If you want to encourage planned gifts, make it easy and intuitive for your supporters to give. On your main Ways to Give page and on your website's running navigation bar, be sure to link to your Planned Giving Microsite so that visitors can easily find it. You can also add a section to your regular donation page that lets supporters request more information on planned gifts while they're already in the giving spirit.

Your goal should be to make planned gifts accessible to everyone. Habitat for Humanity does this by creating a dedicated online space for planned giving. The organization links to it from its main site and then includes pages like “Gifts that cost you nothing now.” They offer sample will language, how to get in touch with their planned giving team, free resources, and a giving toolkit.

A dedicated page or microsite all about your planned giving program makes it easier to promote this way of giving to donors.

You can also give your supporters easy ways to make their wills online. For example, we partner with organizations to include FreeWill as an easy, free way for donors to create bequests. When doing this, you can use social proof statements to encourage supporters to leave bequests. For example, you can say, “Many of our supporters have already written a will and included a gift to our organization.”Check out the American Red Cross’s legacy giving resources to see how this successful nonprofit promotes its planned giving program:

The American Red Cross provides its supporters with a full range of resources to help promote its planned giving program.

Tap into digital advertising resources to promote your planned giving program.

Promote these pages through your usual marketing channels as well as search engine ads. Search engines like Google are a core tool for attracting new traffic to your website, and using search ads to promote your planned giving content can help more individuals interested in creating a legacy find your website.

An example screenshot of a Google search results page for "planned giving" with an ad highlighted at the top of the page

For nonprofits, Google offers the Google Ad Grant program, which provides free advertising credits to spend on search ads each month. This means you can promote your planned giving program through Google Ads for free. 

However, creating and maintaining a Google Ad Grant account still requires time, energy, and expertise. If your nonprofit’s team lacks the resources to commit to managing your Google Ad strategy, consider outsourcing the work to a Google Ad Grant agency. Look specifically for Google-certified partners, which you can trust are highly knowledgeable about Google’s ad policy and effective marketing strategies. 

Work planned giving marketing into your communications team’s existing calendar.

When starting a planned giving program, it’s important to unify the planned giving and communications teams. Together they should plan at least four standalone campaigns to promote the program, plus six to eight integrated mentions in other communications per year.

Include planned giving in communications as:

  • A full campaign for National Make-A-Will month in August
  • Postscript mentions in general fundraising appeals
  • Legacy donor stories in impact and appreciation content
  • Newsletter mentions
  • Ways to donate on GivingTuesday
  • Legacy society announcements

After launching your first planned giving campaign, plan consistent outreach. Repetition is integral for seeing results from your planned giving marketing. A supporter may open an email about planned giving several times before actually sitting down to make a will and leave a bequest. So track your engagement, follow up with potential donors, and set up meetings with top prospects or others who responded with interest.

7. Acknowledge, thank, and steward your planned giving donors.

Thanking your donors as soon as they notify you of a planned gift should be a vital part of your planned giving program. This could involve welcoming them to your legacy society, a simple thank-you, or even a request to follow up with them by phone. Whatever your approach, it’s crucial to acknowledge your donors’ generosity and keep them engaged.

The majority of planned gifts are bequests, and these gifts are revocable up until the time of the donor’s passing. This means that after the initial gift is planned, your nonprofit will need to keep stewarding donors to preserve the gift. Maintain consistent communication, encourage them to be active in your community, and publicly thank them for their gifts.

By doing this, you will strengthen your organization’s relationships with your donors for years to come, increasing their investment in your success and potentially encouraging them to increase their annual giving.

Stewardship ideas for establishing a planned giving program

After thanking your planned giving donors, begin stewarding them on a regular basis with these strategies and offerings:


Thank you messages are a staple of all appreciation strategies. To better connect with donors, nonprofits can add a creative twist to their approach, like eCards. eCards are digital postcards that consist of a written message and a striking visual image, such as a photograph or illustration.

Rather than relying on slow traditional mail delivery, eCards arrive in donors’ inboxes in seconds, making them an effective tool for recognizing donors quickly and memorably. Additionally, some eCard platforms allow for flexible delivery, allowing nonprofits to send eCards via email, text message, social media, or other channels based on donors’ preferences. 

Send eCards to thank planned giving prospects for their regular donations. Then, create special eCards specifically to acknowledge planned gifts. These might include visual references to your planned giving program, as well as personalized messages that speak to donors’ specific giving methods, such as referencing the important legacy they are creating through their gift. 

An example eCard used to promote a planned giving program and steward donors.


Invite your donors to legacy society events, such as annual meetings, lecture series, galas, luncheons, or small virtual gatherings. Use these events to acknowledge your donors publicly, and ensure the focus of these events is gratitude rather than donation requests.

Some types of nonprofits may be able to offer unique events, like facility tours. For example, a museum could offer private or virtual tours of its galleries, a food bank might offer a tour of its warehouse and operations, and an orchestra could invite legacy society members to private concerts.

Donor stories

Use donor stories and other stewardship strategies to keep donors engaged once you’ve created a planned giving program.

Ask your donors if you can share their stories. They each have unique motivations and hopes for their gifts, and sharing these personal stories can help donors connect with your nonprofit and each other, encouraging more giving.

In these stories, ask the donor to reflect on what inspired them to give. For a college’s planned giving program, an alum might speak about the impact a financial aid program had on their life, which inspired them to pay it forward. Or a donor might have been inspired to give a gift in honor of a family member connected to a cause.

Significant dates

Depending on the type of planned gift your donor made, you may want to reach out to them on the anniversary of their commitment. You can also send handwritten thank-you letters and eCards on birthdays or major holidays. Continual communication like this keeps you in your donors’ lives long after their initial gift commitment, increasing the chances they will follow through with it.

Volunteer opportunities

If donors have expressed interest in getting more involved with your organization, invite them to volunteer. This could range from asking your donors to be guest lecturers to helping out at a 5K race fundraiser depending on their interests and skills.

Updates and newsletters

Ask your donors if they want to subscribe to your newsletters and receive updates on your organization. This is an easy way to continue engaging them in your nonprofit’s meaningful work and help them feel confident that their gift will go to an active, sustainable organization.

Phone and video calls

Invite your top planned giving donors to annual calls with your organization’s president. Your gift officers may also occasionally check in with these donors via phone call to see how they’re doing and build a rapport with them.

Care packages

In a conversation with planned giving expert, Cathy Sheffield, Cathy mentioned that she sends handwritten notes with stress-reducing teabags to her clients. Sending a package like this can show how much your organization cares about your donors. Whether you send a care package as a nice thank-you around the holidays or just because, it will make your donors feel appreciated.

Wrapping up

Starting a planned giving program is a fairly straightforward process, but it does require careful strategy and coordination between multiple teams. Prioritize planned giving by allocating plenty of time and resources to your program. Even just a few hours devoted to starting and running your planned giving program can be enough as you’re starting out.

Platforms like FreeWill also make it easy to start a planned giving program by giving donors simple options for creating bequests and giving your team the tools and custom marketing materials it needs to succeed. Learn more about our planned giving platform, and keep exploring with these additional resources:

Build a next-level legacy with planned giving tools from FreeWill

How the country's leading nonprofits launched planned giving programs at their organizations.

How the country's leading nonprofits launched planned giving programs at their organizations.


How the country's leading nonprofits launched planned giving programs at their organizations.

How the country's leading nonprofits launched planned giving programs at their organizations.

How the country's leading nonprofits launched planned giving programs at their organizations.