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

December 16, 2022
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.

Planned giving programs are how organizations make an investment in their future. Large organizations often have the resources to invest in robust programs with dedicated teams of gift officers. But smaller organizations can also get started with planned giving if they’re willing to devote 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. You need to know the different types of planned gifts, how donors can make them, and why they're important to your nonprofit.

First of all, planned gifts secure the future of an organization. They allow nonprofits to plan ahead and budget for years to come. However, nonprofits don't immediately receive the money from most planned gifts. That's why they're often considered "future gifts."

Bequests, which are gifts left in a will, make up every nine of ten planned gifts. And they're only given to the nonprofit upon the donor passing away. Bequests are the easiest way for donors to make a planned gift, so that's where your organization should focus first. All a donor has to do to make this type of planned gift is include a couple of lines in their legal will naming your nonprofit as a beneficiary of part of their estate.

Planned giving programs exist to track these gifts and steward nonprofits’ relationships with these donors, which ensures the organization stays 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.

As you get started, you may also need to make the case to your nonprofit’s leadership on the impact of planned giving. The Baby Boomer generation will pass on an estimated $68 trillion in the next 25 years. This is creating an unprecedented opportunity for nonprofits to tap into planned gifts.

Beyond the opportunity in sheer dollar amounts, there are many other benefits of planned giving as well. For nonprofits, planned gifts offer among the highest return on investment of all fundraising types, are accessible to everyone, and tend to increase 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.

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. If you’re just starting out, you may want to send communications to your entire supporter list. For example, many of our partners include making a gift in a will as one of several ways to give. They may also include it as a postscript in a regular fundraising email.

Your first prospects will be your board members, employees, and volunteers. These are the people who have shown dedication to your organization.

However, you can also use research and donor profiles to identify your top planned giving prospects among the rest of your supporters:

  • Survey your supporters to find any donors who have already made bequests or are interested in learning more about planned giving.
  • Research your survey prospects as well as long-time major or annual donors to see if they have the traits of a planned giving donor.
  • Create donor profiles for your prospects and segment them into lists for outreach.

As your program gets more sophisticated or collects more data, you should be able to segment your prospects even further. Testing and tailoring your messaging to each group can help your nonprofit receive 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 marketing plan. This will most likely be a cross-team effort with communications or marketing. Make sure to cover these three essential components of a planned giving plan:

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

Create your marketing materials.

Write up a resource that explains all of the benefits of planned gifts to your donors. Include any tax advantages or legacy society benefits. Then use this one-pager to inform your other materials, such as website, email, and social media copy. You may want to create a press release on the foundation of your legacy society as well.

Many nonprofits also choose to create dedicated Planned Giving Websites, or standalone sets of pages that explain and facilitate 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 Website 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.

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.

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

The majority of planned gifts are bequests, and these gifts are revocable. So keep stewarding your donors to preserve the gift. Send them your organization’s most important communications, encourage them to be active in your community, and publicly thank them.

By doing this, you will support and strengthen your organization’s relationships with your donors for years to come. They will become invested in your organization’s success and want to engage as much as possible. It may also encourage them to increase their annual giving.

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

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:

Events: Invite your donors to legacy society events, such as annual meetings, galas, luncheons, or small virtual gatherings. Use these events to acknowledge your donors publicly. Focus on gratitude instead of donation asks.

Depending on your organization type, you could offer tours of your facility. For example, a museum could offer private tours (or virtual tours) of its galleries. A food bank might offer a tour of its warehouse and operations. An orchestra could invite legacy society members to private concerts. And any organization could hold lecture series on topics related to their cause.

Donor stories: Ask your donors if you can share their stories. They each had unique motivations for giving and hopes for the impact of their gifts. Sharing personal stories will help you engage with these donors and encourage others to give as well.

In these stories, ask the donor to reflect on what inspired them to give. For a college, 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 send them communications on the anniversary of their commitment. You can also send handwritten thank-yous and letters on their birthday or major holidays.

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.  

Updates and newsletters: Make sure you ask your donors if they want to receive updates on your organization and subscribe to your newsletters. This is an easy way to continue engaging them in your organization's meaningful work.

Phone and video calls: Invite your top planned giving donors to annual calls with your organization’s president. Your gift officers may also want to check in with these donors occasionally to see how they’re doing.

Care packages: Recently, our Co-CEO had 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.

Quick checklist: How to start a planned giving program

Let’s round up all the steps and tips listed above into a digestible checklist:

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

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.

To recap, let’s review a few essential takeaways from this guide:

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.

Why should nonprofits have dedicated planned giving strategies?

Planned giving represents a major opportunity for nonprofit organizations to secure their futures. Planned giving has among the highest ROIs of all fundraising types when efficiently pursued as part of a planned giving program. Not to mention, the Baby Boomer generation will pass on an unprecedented amount of wealth to beneficiaries in the coming decades.

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 someone is in charge. For large nonprofits, planned giving can fall under an established development or major gifts program. For smaller nonprofits, an experienced fundraiser with enough time to devote to planned giving will also make a great program leader.

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

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.

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:


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.