A revolution in legacy giving: case studies

The following article was co-authored by Heather Wardle, CFRE and Simon Trevelyan. It was published in the April 2013 issue of Gift Planning in Canada.

There’s a revolution brewing in the field of legacy giving and it’s gaining pace. It will have a profound impact on charities and will determine which survive and prosper in the future.

Building on the work of earlier pioneers, the authors have developed and implemented legacy systems that are making charities re-think the way they approach legacy giving and engage their donors. It started on the West Coast, but it’s spreading to the east and south.

We think that planned givers will want to take note, because in a few years a large number of charities will be adopting this system. Those early adopters will have a distinct advantage over others.

What are the bases for this extraordinary claim?

  1. The latest research on the brain and legacy giving
  2. The results we have seen in a very short time with charities.

The Research: Legacy Giving and the Brain 

The latest research on the brain and legacy giving by Dr. Russell James1 shows that the decision to leave a legacy gift is connected to our internal visualization system, specifically the part of the brain that people use when they think back on their lives and recall autobiographical events. To conduct his research, Dr. James hooked people up to an MRI machine to see what areas of the brain they were using when they thought about legacy gifts and other types of charitable donations, such as annual gifts.

He found that the decision to make annual gifts and legacy gifts used very different parts of the brain. The decision to leave a legacy gift was connected to the same part of the brain we use to think about our own life story.

The implications of this research are profound for all fundraisers. This research clearly demonstrates that to motivate donors to leave legacy gifts, we must connect their life stories with our charity’s mission, vision and values.

This brain research correlates perfectly with the success we’ve seen in implementing what we call our “motivational” approach to legacy giving. This is a very revolutionary method compared to the traditional “planned giving” model still used by most charities in North America. Rather than sitting face-to-face with a select few donors to talk about the various planned gift vehicles and the tax savings, this new method engages all charity supporters and encourages them to reflect on the work and values of the charity and how those converge with their own values and desires to make a difference.

This research has even wider implications for our sector; it indicates that the skills you will need for future success in legacy giving are very different from the ones that our planned giving sector has been promulgating for decades. To have a successful legacy program, we need to tell donors WHY to make a gift, not HOW to make a gift.

The Proof: A 20-Fold Increase in Legacy Commitments and Leads

First let’s confirm some terms. Legacy “commitments” are those people who have confirmed to a charity that they have included a legacy gift in their estates. The vast majority are bequests. Legacy “leads” are those supporters who have expressed interest in leaving a legacy gift to a charity through actively asking for information about leaving a gift or saying that they are interested.

Simon Trevelyan, one of the authors of this article, has been developing his motivational-based engagement system for the last 10 years. At the BC SPCA, the multi-channel marketing and solicitation approach increased legacy leads and commitments 20-fold, generating $150 million in legacy pledges.

More recently, this approach is starting to be adopted by charities both large and small. It gives organizations the tools, systems, training and coaching to generate legacy leads and commitments for themselves, indefinitely.

Inspired by the method and its success, the other co-author has now implemented this revolutionary legacy engagement system at two charities with the following results:

Charity A is a small, established international development charity in BC with an active donor base of about 2,200 and one full-time fundraiser able to devote only 5% of her time to planned giving.

Steps to success:

  • Creation of a strategic plan with a goal to increase legacy commitments from 0.5% to 5% of the donor base within 5 years;
  • Creation of a case for support for legacy giving that was mission based and which appealed to the values, backgrounds and aspiration of individuals;
  • Development of a legacy brand for the charity and key messages;
  • Creation of a donor survey system, marketing collateral, an inspirational legacy video, donor stewardship systems and follow-up and cultivation strategy;
  • A multi-channel marketing and communications plan so the legacy message could be used throughout the organization’s touch points with donors, from the website, to the newsletter to the annual report.


  • 117 leads generated – a 22-fold increase
  • 81 legacy commitments confirmed – 3.7% of the donor base (so well on track to reach the 5% goal in the strategic plan)
  • almost 50% response rate to donor survey

Charity B, based in Seattle, USA, has less than 2 full-time staff in North America. Prior to launching the legacy campaign, the charity knew of only 3 legacy commitments and had 0 legacy leads. As with Charity A, the following steps were put in place to launch the legacy campaign:

  • a strategic plan to convert 5% of all donors to a legacy gift within 4 years
  • a case for support in the form of a legacy booklet
  • an online and print legacy survey
  • database tracking systems to measure performance
  • donor stewardship systems and correspondence templates


In the FIRST MONTH of the legacy campaign, 249 surveys were completed and:

  • 82 leads generated (33% of survey respondents)
  • 24 legacy commitments were confirmed (10% of respondents)
  • 56% response rate to legacy donor survey

planned giving campaign results

The above chart shows the potential increase in legacy revenue to Charity A and Charity B before and after the implementation of the motivational legacy campaigns. It assumes an average legacy gift size of $60,000 for the Canadian charity A and $32,000 average legacy gift size for Charity B in the US. It combines both expectants and leads before and after the campaign, an assumption the authors feel comfortable in making knowing that only a small portion of each charity’s donor base has been so far been reached with the legacy campaigns.


The motivational legacy campaigns and supporting marketing materials clearly engaged donors and struck an emotional chord with them, as is shown from the results.

Using donor survey as a soft, gentle ask allows the donors to answer questions about legacy gifts in their own time and to reflect back on the connection between their life stories and the charity’s mission and vision. Sending out the surveys in small batches allows for personalization, rapid replies to donors, great donor stewardship and a manageable workload for the charity’s staff.

It appears, from the authors’ experience, that small organizations may be more nimble and willing to take on a new approach. Based on these results, maybe the little guys will lead the way in this legacy revolution and can teach the big charities something.

Many charities, large and small, still practice a very dry, tax-incentive-based approach to legacy giving that tends to be much more demanding of staff time and charity resources. The authors suggest they might want to examine a new approach or risk missing out of a large number of potential legacy gifts that could bring about a massive change in their ability to achieve their vision.

1 Charitable Estate Planning as Visualized Autobiography: An fMRI Study of its Neural Correlates (February 6, 2012). James, Russell N. and O’Boyle, Michael W. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2000345 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2000345

Simon Trevelyan is President of S.T. Legacy Group, an innovator in legacy development and marketing, helping charities to maximize their planned giving potential. Contact him at simon@stlegacygroup.com or visit www.stlegacygroup.com.

Heather Wardle, CFRE is a Vancouver-based fundraising and communications consultant. Contact her at heather.wardle1500@gmail.com or visit www.heatherwardle.com.