Is it Time to Dump “Planned Giving”?

As we all work to promote planned giving, many in the nonprofit sector have questioned whether or not the very term “planned giving” can be replaced by something more effective.

Greg Warner, President at MarketSmart, started an interesting discussion a couple weeks ago on the Legacy/Estate/Gift Planning and Planned Giving Professionals Group on LinkedIn. Warner asked:

Since most donors are not familiar with the term ‘planned giving,’ what other terms or phrases should we use to market planned gifts?”

The question stimulated a lively discussion.

The nonprofit sector has grown tired of the term “planned giving,” thinks of it as inelegant, or recognizes that very few people understand what the term means. As happens periodically, the nonprofit sector is searching for a new, more comfortable descriptive label. And, there is some validity to the concerns the sector has about the term.

The Stelter Company conducted a survey that I cite in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, that found only 37 percent of Americans over the age of 30 have a familiarity with the term “planned giving.” We have no way of knowing what percentage of those claiming familiarity really, in fact, know what the term means.

Those who responded to Warner’s question suggested several alternatives to “planned giving.” However, none of the suggested replacement terms represents a perfect solution. So, what should the nonprofit sector do? Should we keep or dump the term “planned giving”?

My friend Viken Mikaelian, Founder of PlannedGiving.Com, has done a comparison of the terms “planned giving” and “gift planning.” He discovered that, on Google, the words “gift planning” are out-searched 100-to-1 by the words “planned giving.” In a search of Google’s digital library of over 13 million books, “planned giving” is far and away the more popular term when compared to “gift planning.”

Mikaelian concludes, “So if you believe in search engine optimization (SEO) for your planned giving website, ‘planned giving’ is a better choice.” You can read Mikaelian’s full report here.

I decided to conduct my own test. I Googled the various terms suggested by those who responded to Warner’s question. I wanted to see how many results would be found for each term. Here’s what I discovered:

The term “planned giving” produced over five times more results than the number two term, “gift planning.” As Mikaelian concluded, if we’re concerned about SEO, the evidence strongly suggests that we should use “planned giving.” In other words, if you want your prospects to be able to easily find you in this electronic age, use the term “planned giving.”

The data also suggests that “planned giving” is the better choice in print media as well as electronic. It may not be an artful term, it may not yet be widely understood, but it’s the best description of, well, planned giving. Changing our vocabulary now will only further confuse the public and make it more difficult for us to connect with them.

That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?

UPDATE (Nov. 7, 2011): I will be participating in the #fundchat conversation on Twitter on Wednesday, Nov. 9, at noon (EST). The topic will be “Planned Giving: Moving Beyond the Basics.” Participating in #fundchat is free and a great opportunity to network with dozens of fundraising colleagues. You can learn more about the discussion and how to participate by visiting: Following the discussion, the transcript will be available at

23 Responses to “Is it Time to Dump “Planned Giving”?”

  1. Of course I think this is a terrific blog post Michael. Thanks for giving me credit for the post on LinkedIn.

    But I thought I should point out that both Viken’s and your methods for determining whether or not the term “planned giving” should be used are not really the best ways to make an evaluation because both assume that planned giving marketing is an “inbound marketing” strategy.

    “Inbound marketing” is a phrase coined by co-founder and CEO of Hubspot. The definition can be found here

    SEO (an inbound marketing tactic) is important only if people search for specific terms in order to research something or buy a product. For instance, if I were looking to buy a needle for my record player (yes, I still listen to vinyl records), I’d search for a “record player needle” in the Google search bar.

    But most donors don’t search for planned giving. I believe successful planned giving marketing is mostly accomplished with more traditional “outbound marketing”. Thus, we need to send letters and mailers to drive prospects to learn more about it, how it works, and how it can benefit both them (the donor) and the organizations they cherish. Telemarketing (cold calls) is also an outbound marketing tactic.

    I believe that most of the searches in Viken’s research were actually done by people like us in the planned giving community, not donors.

    Also, I believe you found a large number of results for the term (almost 4 million) because that is indeed the term that has been used most by folks like us for a number of years. So, that term happens to be all over the internet.

    I guess what I’m getting around to saying is that each organization should use the term they think works best for each marketing message and medium. For instance, a letter to a donor could include a simple P.S. that says something like “Please consider a charitable gift to benefit the XYZ foundation in your will.” While a hospital could mention in their newsletter that the purchase of a new medical device “was made possible by a carefully planned gift in the will of a local donor.” And a conversation with a donor could suggest that a charitable gift annuity without even mentioning the words “planned giving”.

    So, although I started the discussion on LinkedIn to see if there could be a consensus on the term we use, I think I learned that the term we decide to use really depends on the “outbound” vehicle we’re using to send the message and the marketing strategies and tactics we are employing.

    • Greg, thank you once again for inspiring my blog post this week and thank you for adding to the discussion with your comment here. I need to point out that Viken’s report and my further investigation did indeed focus on Search Engine Optimization, as I clearly stated. So, you’re quite correct when you wrote that we focused on in-bound marketing. However, I believe that effective SEO, in this electronic age, is a very important consideration. Also, how people engage on an in-bound basis is somewhat indicative of how they will engage on an out-bound basis. In other words, if people understand the term “planned giving” more than any other related term for in-bound purposes, they will likely understand the term “planned giving” more than any other related term when it comes to out-bound marketing.

      It is probably true that “planned giving” was the most popular term in the analyses that Viken and I did because it is the term most commonly used by development professionals, But, that does not change the point I was making. People recognize “planned giving” more than other related terms because that is the term the sector has been using. So what? The fact remains that “planned giving” is the most recognized, most used of the related terms. It’s understood by development professionals, nonprofit managers, nonprofit boards, and its most understood by civilians.

      Is the term “planned giving” perfect? No. But, neither is any other term I’ve heard suggested. The term remains the most used by development professionals and the most understood by the public. While I might wish the sector had come up with a better term decades ago, it did not. To switch terms now would cause further market confusion and negatively impact SEO. And, there’s no assurance that a new term would work any better. In fact, “gift planning” has been around for quite awhile. But, there’s no evidence that that is a term that is better understood or more commonly used by the public.

      As for your discussion of out-bound marketing, you shift gears entirely. There is a vast difference between coming up with one general descriptive term for “planned giving” and coming up with appropriate language for talking with donors about their giving. I would never and, I think I’m safe here in saying, Viken would never send out a direct mail appeal asking folks to “make a planned gift.” Instead, as you’ve suggested, I would write to folks and say something like, “Remember the ABC Charity in you will.” I would not use confusing or off-putting language like “charitable bequest gift.” I would keep it simple and direct. I would keep it focused on what I believe is the most appropriate gift opportunity or opportunities for the prospect. And, I agree with your suggestion about Charitable Gift Annuities. There’s no need to discuss “planned giving” when talking with a prospect about a CGA. In fact, there’s little reason to even dwell on the term “Charitable Gift Annuity.” Instead, I’d talk about how the donor can support the charity while getting an income for life. So, we do not disagree at all on the out-bound messaging to prospects, particularly about specific gift oppotunities. But, that wasn’t the point of my blog post although you’ve now given me an idea for a future post.

      My blog post concerned the over-arching term we use to describe all of the various activities and gift vehicles we use. The term “planned giving” continues to be the most used and, therefore, the most recognized. Using another over-arching term such as “gift planning” is, therefore, risky and will not necessarily accomplish anything good for an organization. Now, having said that, I do believe that communications to prospects should avoid the over-arching term, whatever you choose, and focus on specifics using common language.

      • Michael, you said “how people engage on an in-bound basis is somewhat indicative of how they will engage on an out-bound basis…[and] they will likely understand the term “planned giving” more than any other related term when it comes to out-bound marketing,” but, as Greg indicated, our primary audience is not the relatively few members of the public who actively scour the internet with specific search terms – who, presumably would be those most likely to recognize the term “planned giving” – but the majority of the public, who receive our messages in a passive mode.

        When you say that “if people understand the term ‘planned giving’ more than any other related term for in-bound purposes, they will likely understand the term ‘planned giving’ more than any other related term when it comes to out-bound marketing,” it gives the impression that you are defending the use of jargon, though I doubt that’s what you intend. As Greg suggests, consistent with your own donor-centered philosophy, language should be tailored to the specific circumstances, and there should be no need for an “over-arching” term, except within the profession. In that very limited context, the short-hand term “planned giving” is as good as any.

        I feel compelled to point out, too, that, in my view, the terms “planned giving” and “gift planning” are as interchangeable as “up” and “down.” But that discussion is for another time.

        Jeff Steele
        Grand High Exalted Infallible Mystic Ruler of Tax-Planned Charitable Giving
        and Planned Giving Curmudgeon Emeritus

      • Jeff, thanks for the opportunity to clarify what I wrote. In my response to Greg, I attempted to indicate my agreement with him. But, since that did not come across, let me take another stab it:

        An overarching term is necessary within the profession for practitioners to discuss amongst ourselves what on Earth we’re doing and talking about. “Planned Giving,” while imperfect has been around a long time and clearly has the greatest market acceptance by far. Therefore, it’s still a term worth using, though in a limited way.

        An overarching term is also useful for SEO and in-bound marketing purposes. If you want to be found (even or especially by the miniority of prospects that go looking and understand the terminology) “planned giving” is the way to go. Getting clever or fancy will simply, at least in the short term, reduce impact.

        An overarching term should be AVOIDED in out-bound marketing. There’s almost never a point to using any over-arching term beyond on a business card (i.e.: Director of Planned Giving). However, if there is a need, “planned giving” is more likely to resonate with the prospect. However, it is, as you and Greg suggest and as I’ve already agreed, far better to talk with donors about specific gift opportunities, in the context of their particular situation, in clear, direct, simple, non-off-putting terms. For example, we should not talk about planned gifts but, instead, the philanthropic aspirations of the prospect (or, more simply, what does the donor want accomplish with his/her giving?). We should not talk about charitable bequests but rather a gift in your will. We should not talk about charitable gift annuities but rather gifts that will allow you to receive an income for life.

        Jeff, there have been and will be plenty of times when we disagree. I just don’t think this is one of those times.

  2. Michael,

    I saw this discussion and am glad that you are exploring it further here. It seems like a case where we have created our own monster! I think the public is identifying “planned giving” with our work because that’s what we’ve been telling them to call it for a couple of decades now. I agree that it might be best to stick with the familiar, but it’s too bad we didn’t offer something more elegant in the first place.

    Related discussion in Canada this week about the term “non-profit” and whether that can/should be changed here:

    Christina Attard

    • Christina, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for providing the link to the Canadian discussion about the term “nonprofit.” By the way, what is it with you Canadians? You hyphenate the word “non-profit” but not the word “fundraising”? 🙂 Anyway, while we might disagree about hyphenation, I’m with you on “planned giving.” Like you, I wish the nonprofit (or non-profit) sector had come up with a term better than “planned giving” decades ago. I also agree that, at this point, it’s probably wise to “stick with the familiar.”

  3. In the mean time, more and more organizations are describing their activity as legacy giving or legacy gifts. It’s really the only “you” term. Deferred giving, planned giving, gift planning, philanthropic planning are all “us” terms.

    I suggest you all take the plunge and to this route. Our supporters don’t leave a plan. They leave a legacy. Please join them.

    • Greg, thank you for sharing your thoughts. While “legacy giving” may seem to be a prettier term than “planned giving,” it is not without its problems. First, not all planned gifts are “legacy” gifts. I would argue that a gift of $1000 of appreciated stock is a planned gift. It involves a giving instruement rather than cash, it involves a tax avoidance strategy, it will likely involve the services of a CPA and/or broker, and it involves some actual planning on the part of the donor. However, it would take a gold-medal mental gymnist to describe a $1000 gift as a “legacy gift.” Also, some planned gifts are designed to be spent immediately by the organization with no particular lasting impact. In short, not all planned gifts are “legacy gifts.” Second, the term “legacy” is not particularly well understood by the public. It’s another “insider” term. For example, a great many people think that a “legacy” is something that only rich people think about. This is actually a huge problem since 40 percent of those with investible assets of $3 million or more do NOT consider themselves “rich” (U.S. Trust). In other words, using the term “legacy” could result in a disconnect with a great number of wealthy prospects.

      Frankly, and this is me on my Friday evening soapbox, I’m a bit cranky. Not toward you, Greg, but toward the nonprofit sector in general. Only 22 percent of those over the age of 30 report ever having been asked for a planned gift (Stelter). I wish our sector would take some of the energy being spent on rebranding and put more effort into reaching out and asking. Ah, but that’s a subject for another blog post. Ok, I’m better now.

  4. Ultimately (and I know everyone in this “conversation” already knows this), putting a term to something, planned gift, legacy gift, (whatever!). does little for the marketing this form of philanthropy. It is not like a prospect goes on line and searches for “planned giving” or “gift planning”.

    IMHO, people who end up making planned gifts are educated by the information they receive…and not look for on line. People who already feel a connection to a nonprofit will be interested in hearing about this form of charity (hopefully from the nonprofit), whether it’s called legacy giving or gift planning as another way to support something they care about.

    • Lorri, thank you for adding your thoughts to the discussion. I suspect you’re quite correct. Very few folks are sitting at home, surfing the net, and saying, “Hmm. I’ve looked at everything else on the Internet. I might as well search for ‘planned giving.'” Nevertheless, as Viken’s analysis reveals, “planned giving” has much greater market acceptance than any other over-arching term. However, as the consensus here indicates, using an over-arching term is something development professionals should only do when absolutely necessary. Instead, it is better to speak with prospects about specific giving opportunities using simple, direct language.

  5. Michael – your last thought here about non-profits not using “planned giving” are dead on. the smaller organizations especially are still too focused on transaction-based, ephemeral fundraising methods that never go deeper with their donors. I believe that even younger folks are interested in purposeful planning of their philanthropy. For instance, in my work this week, I came across a young couple in their twenties that have already made plans for their favorite charities in their wills and with their IRA/retirement plans. It’s all because a thoughtful development professional decided to have the conversation . . . also resulted in significant current gifts! It’s a total portfolio approach that you address so well in your book, Michael . . . Thanks for inspiring this conversation.

    • Laura, thank you for commenting. And, thank you for making the point that we should be taking a holistic approach to development when talking with our prospects about their philanthropy. I also appreciate the story you shared which nicely illustrates that not every planned gift conversation results only in deferred gifts. When we take a holistic approach, we can more easily secure current planned gifts and current cash contributions as well.

  6. Michael,
    Thank you for another enlightening post. I agree with the earlier points about making the language donor-centered and also appreciate your SEO approach. However, I’d argue that most fundraisers don’t know what language to use, let alone any would-be givers. As opposed to the many iterations of ‘planned giving’, I would imagine people are Google-ing, asking friends and neighbors about more specific terms like ‘stock gifts’, ‘estate giving’, ‘donation in my will’, etc. For our profession, ‘planned giving’ may be the internal umbrella term we need to give to this group of gift options, but we may want to rethink how we speak to donors and decentralize our message, SEO and tactics to speak to the specific situation of the donor. That said, many still have no idea what ‘development’ means :).

    • Nathan, thank you for your comments. You’re absolutely correct. If we take a holistic, donor-centered approach to planned giving, we’ll seldom have a need to use the over-arching term. Instead, we’ll talk about specific gift opportunities, that are appropriate for the prospect, in simple and direct language.

  7. If the search is for something genuinely donor centric, a term to use in donor facing marketing (rather than internally), a term that people actually use and understand – perhaps going back to basics is the best way forward.

    How about calling it what it is, i.e:

    “Leaving a gift to charity in your will.”

    I think more donors would understand what this means than any of the other terms. And a ‘gift’ can cover all kinds of provisions, from a lump sum to a stock linked ones.

    Plus, it scores 67 million hits on Google, making it about 17 times more SEO freindly than “planned giving.”

    What do you think?

    • Jules, thank you for your comments. I agree that there should be a difference in our language when speaking with insiders v. prospective donors. For development professionals, “planned giving” is an over-arching term with meaning. For prospective donors, even if they know what the term means, “planned giving” is a term that will not resonate much. That’s why I think we should minimize the use over over-arching terms when addressing prospects and donors. For an annual fund effort, we would never talk to donors about our “development program.” Instead, smart nonprofits talk about specific needs and specific gift opportunities. The same should be true of planned giving. Simple and direct is the way to go. Your example is right on target.

      As for SEO, the term “gift in will” has been generally less searched for than “planned giving” although there have been times when “gift in will” outperformed “planned giving” in searches. The big problem with “gift in will” is that it does not describe the other planned gift options. But, what it does demonstrate is the power of being simple, specific, and direct. (By the way, there’s a difference between looking at the number of web pages with a key phrase v. looking at the number of searches for a key phrase. You explored the former while I explored the latter. Looking at both is useful.)

  8. This is a fantastic piece. In a time when planned giving is so crucial–even more so with present economic stressors–it is evident that seemingly small details make a sizable difference. Viken spends a great deal of time ensuring that we are looking at every aspect of optimizing areas of opportunity for the benefit of those with whom we are fortunate to work. His attention to detail was captured accurately in this very thorough piece. Thank you, Michael, for your shared thoughts on how something so seemingly small as the terminology, in the overall scheme of “planned giving,” really matters.

    • Tina, thank you for your kind comment. In the development profession, we need to not just communicate with prospects and donors, we need to communicate effectively. I appreciate Viken’s efforts to help us all be more effective.

      • Hi Michael,

        Thanks for putting me right on the Google search differences, my mistake. Being a copywriter I couldn’t help thinking about this issue again, and the following occurred to me:

        1. For internal/organizational use: “Willed Giving”
        2. For external & marketing use: “Will Giving”

        The two terms are close enough to become almost interchangeable without either audience misunderstanding; they are both very simple and descriptive; and they both seem to cover all planned giving bases. I wonder how they would score for Term Searches? Thoughts?

      • Jules, thanks again for your comments. You’ve made an interesting suggestion about terminology. Your external example is certainly simple and direct as long as you’re talking about wills. Similarly simple, direct language is necessary for other forms of planned giving. For example, for a Charitable Gift Annuity, we can talk about a “gift that gives you an income for life.” Being simple and direct is the easier way to a gift.

  9. Interesting I stumbled upon this as I had the same thoughts. Does the name “planned giving” evoke anything in our donors about the mission? I have considered a change in my title as Planned Giving Director to something that has a larger appeal and definition, possilby “Mission Advancement Director”. Appreciate any thoughts.

    • Pam, thank you for your comment. The job title question is an interesting one. And, it is a natural extension of this blog post. However, I think it’s a pretty big topic in its own right. So, I think I’ll blog about this next week. I’ll share my thoughts and, more importantly, invite readers to share their job titles. If you’d like to share more of your thoughts about the discussions you’ve had about job title, please let me know. In any case, I’ll look forward to your comments to next week’s post. Thanks again!


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