Do You Know that “Planned Giving” is Bad for #Fundraising?

That’s right. “Planned Giving” is bad for nonprofit fundraising.

For years, I’ve been writing and talking about the problems with the term “Planned Giving.” Now, new research underscores what I’ve been advising: You should stop using the term!

Sometime ago, The Stelter Company conducted a survey that I cite in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. Stelter 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 truly means.

Other terms have become increasingly popular as substitutes for “Planned Giving.” However, none has yet to gain sufficient traction to overtake the use of “Planned Giving.” Consider the results from simple Google searches I conducted for this post:

  • Planned Giving — 14.8 million results
  • Philanthropic Planning — 11.1 million results
  • Gift Planning — 5.7 million results
  • Legacy Giving — 2.1 million results

What we know is that the general public has little understanding of the term “Planned Giving” although it appears to be the best term we have. Unfortunately, popular does not mean effective.

William Shatner in The Grim Reaper by Tom Simpson via FlickrWhile “Planned Giving” is a reasonable, inside-the-development-office catch-all term to describe, well, planned giving, it’s not a particularly good marketing term. That’s according to the findings of philanthropy researcher Russell James, JD, PhD, CFP.

James conducted a study to answer this vitally important marketing question: “What is the best ‘front door’ phrase to make people want to read more Planned Giving information?”

Think of it this way: Will a “Planned Giving” button at your website encourage visitors to click through to learn more or is there a more effective term?

To be a successful term, James believes two objectives must be met:

  1. Individuals have to be interested in finding out more.
  2. Individuals have to expect to see Planned Giving information (i.e., no “bait and switch”).

To find the strongest marketing term, James asked people to imagine they were viewing the website of a charity representing a cause that is important in their lives. In addition to a “Donate Now” button, the following buttons appear on the website:

  • Gift Planning
  • Planned Giving
  • Giving Now & Later
  • Other Ways to Give
  • Other Ways to Give Smarter
  • Other Ways to Give Cheaper, Easier, and Smarter

James asked participants to rate their level of interest in clicking on the button to read the corresponding information. In a follow-up, James asked study participants what kind of information they would expect to see when clicking the buttons mentioned above.

The winning term is:

Other Ways to Give Smarter.”

This term generated the second greatest level of interest and the second highest understanding of what to expect when clicking through. The terms that rated higher had a great disconnect between interest and expectation thereby making them poor choices.

By the way, “Planned Giving” only attracted the interest of four percent of study participants while “Gift Planning” came in at just three percent!

When marketing, we will generate stronger fundraising results by replacing “Planned Giving” with a more effective term. James research points us in the right direction.

Last month, James presented the findings of this study, along with his other recent research findings, in the webinar Words that Work II: The Phrases that Encourage Planned Giving. The program was hosted by MarketSmart.

If you missed the webinar, I have some great news for you. You can download a free recording of James’ presentation by clicking here.

You can also read what James’ research says about bequest giving by reading my post “Avoid a Big Mistake: Stop Asking for Bequest Gifts!

I want to also mention that James continues to research the words that will allow us to be most effective. What alternative words or phrases to “Planned Giving” would you like James to test in future studies? What words or phrases have you used that you believe have been effective?

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

23 Responses to “Do You Know that “Planned Giving” is Bad for #Fundraising?”

  1. Dr. James’ research shows that descriptive phrases rather than the name-of-the-thing are the most effective at inspiring action. Also, that the words used to generate initial interest are different than those used to move a prospective donor to the consideration phase So, “Ways to give smarter” first followed by the more specific “Avoid taxes by giving stocks.”

    His research and the Stelter report both offer valuable insights for marketers.

    Thanks for calling attention to them!

    • Michael, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. You’re right. Choosing the right words for each step along the way is essential. In addition, we need to understand that the more specific we are, the more effective we will be. In other words, the less we focus on overall planned giving and the more we emphasize the specific gifts we are seeking, the better. For example, if we want folks to include the charity in their wills, then that’s what we should talk about rather than speaking broadly of legacy giving. Choosing the right words and focusing efforts yields results.

  2. Any thoughts on how to translate that into job titles? “Director of Smarter Giving”? Or do job titles even matter?

    • Sheila, thank you for asking about job titles. This is one I’ve wrestled with for a long time. Nevertheless, I haven’t come up with a great solution. My all-time favorite title that I’ve come across is “Minister of Philanthropy.” Yes, that was a real title given to a friend of mine at a church-related organization. For planned giving folks, I tend to lean toward “Director of Philanthropic Planning.” My least favorite title is “Planned Giving Officer.” Pretty much ANY title is better than that one.

      In the USA, job titles tend to be a bit more important than in other countries (e.g., Canada and the UK). However, that doesn’t mean we should be overly sensitive about titles. While it would be nice to have a helpful title, the most important thing is to have one that does no harm. Hmmm, now I wonder which category “Director of Smarter Giving” would fall into. 🙂

  3. I agree. In fact, the term “nonprofit” is also fraught with problems, as most people assume it means “no profit” when in fact it just means we “spend profit”. I long for the day when we can re-label nonprofits to lose the image that they do not make/raise/need money.

    • Joshua, thank you for raising an interesting issue. I agree that “nonprofit” is not a particularly good word for the sector. Nevertheless, it’s probably the best label we have at that the moment. “Charity” is perhaps a bit better, but certainly does not describe all nonprofits. “Community Benefit Organizations” is too long, to vague, and also doesn’t cover all nonprofits. My feeling is that “nonprofit” is probably good enough, despite the problems with the term. Instead of trying to rebrand the entire sector, our energy, time, and money is probably better spent focusing on advancing the missions of each of our organizations. Now, having just said that, I’m certainly open to any fantastic rebranding ideas anyone has; I just haven’t seen any yet.

  4. Interesting article and discussion. Thanks for raising it, Michael. I’ve long struggled with it, and at one point had a “Director of Planned Giving,” then a “Director of Endowment Giving,” then a “Director of Legacy Giving,” and then a “Director of Philanthropic Gifts.” I’m not sure any of this matters, but we always tried to step inside the mind of our would-be donors. What would they be thinking about when they spoke with this staff person? We had the “Director of Endowment Giving” while in the midst of an endowment campaign. And at this point in time the board were directing all legacy gifts to quasi-endowment. So, this aligned with our purpose as well as with the purpose of the donors in making giving decisions.

    Speaking of getting inside your donor’s mind, the point about speaking specifically about whatever type of gift you’re seeking — and touting the unique benefits to the donor of that particular giving vehicle — makes a lot of sense. With today’s low interest rates, relatively few people are making charitable trust gifts. So, a “planned giving” page on your website (or a brochure) that goes on and on about CRTs, CLTs and PIFs is going to be relatively useless in generating gifts. Much better to talk specifically about making a bequest in your will/trust to see your legacy live on. Or, making charity a beneficiary of a retirement plan to preserve other assets for your kids. Or using a CGA as part of your own retirement planning.

    I like the idea James came up with of “Ways to Give Smarter.” 🙂

    • Claire, thank you for joining the conversation. The more we can simplify our language, the more likely we are to be easily understood by prospects and donors. That makes our messages more accessible and, therefore, ultimately more effective. While any charity would love to be the beneficiary of a Charitable Trust (CRT or CLT), such gifts are extremely rare even in the best of times. Checkout my post: “Are You Wasting Time by Hunting Unicorns?” The most common planned gifts are gifts in a will (bequest), beneficiary designations, gifts of appreciated securities, gifts of personal property, and Charitable Gift Annuities. So, let’s ask for what we want and what we’re likely to get.

  5. Hey Michael: Does this mean you’re going to re-title your book?

    Also, I saw where one college is looking for a Director of Stewardship.

    • Jay, thanks for taking the time to comment. Regarding my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, I’m standing by the title. As I mentioned in my post, I continue to believe that it is perfectly fine to talk about “planned giving” and “planned gifts” INSIDE the development office. It’s when communicating with prospects and donors that the term becomes problematic and, therefore, should seldom be used. As the audience for my book is development and nonprofit professionals, not prospects or donors, there’s no problem. By the way, in my book, I outlined some of the problems with the term “planned giving.”

      As for the title “Director of Stewardship,” I suspect it’s a title that means more to the organization than its donors. A better title might be: “Director of Donor Relations” or “Director of Community Relations.”

  6. How about this for a job title (albeit a church one), “Executive Pastor of Generosity” in the Department of Stewardship and Generosity?

    When I first heard “Ways to Give Smarter” it struck me that some people might see that as a hierarchy and that their annual gifts really aren’t “smart” giving. Maybe I’m reading too much into it – but I like “Other ways to give smart(er).” Using the word “other” affirms the many ways people give.

    • Cesie, thanks for sharing your thoughts. A friend of mine who worked for a church at the time had a great title: Minister of Philanthropy. I understand the point of the “Generosity” title you mentioned. My preference would be more with “Philanthropy.” When we talk about generosity, I think people focus on money and the transaction of giving. When we talk about philanthropy, we’re talking about, improving our community and/or the world and, perhaps, even our legacy. Which would donors prefer? I have no idea. It would be interesting to test, though.

      While Dr. James tested how various terms would impact interest in learning more about planned giving, he did not test to see if there would be any negative backlash concerning annual giving. You’ve raised a very interesting issue that I’ll be sure to take up with Dr. James when I speak to him again.

  7. As someone with the title “Planned Giving Officer” I like the idea of title Director of Smarter Giving. Most people have no idea how I can help them stretch their charitable gifts to have more impact.

    • Gary, thank you for your comment. While Dr. James studied what terms would inspire the interest of prospective donors, he has not tested various job titles. I think that would be something worth looking at; I’ll suggest that to him. Meantime, maybe you can use a 2 pt. font for “Planned Giving Officer” on your business card. 🙂

  8. Michael, hi again. I love this piece and have circled back to re-read it a few times. May we have your permission to post it at the LAPA Fundraising blog called INFO? Please let me know.


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