Posts tagged ‘symbolic immortality’

April 10, 2020

Legacy Fundraising: The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

Over the past couple of weeks, social media, the blogosphere, and countless webinars have pondered the question: Is this the best or worst of times for legacy fundraising? Unfortunately, despite the high volume of opinions circulating, a view grounded in science has yet to emerge. So, philanthropy researcher Russell N. James III, JD, PhD, CFP® and I teamed up to prepare a special white paper for you that analyzes the current legacy-giving environment and reveals to you a path forward that we base on fact rather than emotional whim.

This blog post provides you with the full paper, nearly 5,000 words, with all of its insights and tips. In addition, you can download the PDF version for FREE. You may want to share the white paper PDF with your CEO, CFO, and board leadership.

Because of the unusual length of this post, I won’t offer any additional introductory comments other than to say that Russell and I are available for speaking engagements, training sessions, consultation, and interviews to address this and other relevant subjects. For more information, please contact me.

Now, here is the complete white paper:

 

Legacy Fundraising: The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

Russell N. James III, JD, PhD, CFP® and Michael J. Rosen

The death media currently inundate us with panic-inducing news. Ubiquitous reports about the spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Daily death tolls. Images of people in masks or complete hazmat suits. Talk of overwhelmed hospitals. News of quarantined regions and nations.

What should a legacy fundraiser do in the midst of a societal crisis? Stop communicating altogether? Make a last-minute push to get into a donor’s Will before it’s too late? Something in between? All of the above?

To get some guidance, it helps to start with a bit of social-science theory, a look at recent financial history, and early empirical data.

Social-Science Theory

We start with social-science theory because it’s actually quite useful to first understand what we know about how people react to reminders of death.

An entire field of experimental psychology focuses on this very topic. Scientists call it Terror Management Theory. This field has produced many hundreds of experimental results. Therefore, we know quite a lot about what happens when you remind people that they are going to die.

There are many technical books and papers on the subject. Google Scholar lists 12,500 of them. Here’s a quick summary. Death is a problem. People use two solutions:  1) ignore the problem, or 2) live on after death. Allow us to explain.

The Two Defenses to Death Reminders

People respond to death reminders with two stages of defense. The first stage (proximal) defense is avoidance. Avoidance comes from a desire to suppress the reminder. This suppression can be expressed in many ways. For example, it might involve physically moving away from the reminder (e.g., avoiding strolling past a hospital or cemetery when taking a walk). It might involve denigrating a mortality reminder’s validity or personal applicability (e.g., it can’t happen to me). It might be dismissing the subject with humor (e.g., the film Death at a Funeral).

The second stage (distal) defense is pursuit of symbolic immortality or lasting social impact. When avoidance doesn’t work, then we must somehow deal with our own earthly impermanence. We deal with this by latching on to those things that will remain after we are gone. In other words, I may disappear, but some part of my identity – my family, my values, my in-group, my people, my story, my causes – will remain.

People don’t treat personal death reminders in the same way they treat other pieces of objective information. In legacy fundraising, it has always been important to understand this. These two underlying defensive responses help to explain how people will respond.

Death Just Got Way More Offensive

In experiments, personal death reminders ramp up avoidance responses. The more death reminders, the more avoidance people will exhibit. Right now, COVID-19 news engulfs our audiences in personal death reminders. For many people, this will make any death-related communications aversive.

(Interestingly, people will gladly read the latest news headlines as a means of pursuing avoidance. People hunger for details on how to avoid the death risk. They will support strong action that promises the same. Others may even pursue avoidance by putting unwarranted faith in untested treatments or unproven protocols.)

In addition to people living in an environment that stimulates greater levels of death avoidance, current conditions cause individuals to feel less of an emotional sense of wellbeing.

Dr. Jen Shang, a philanthropic psychologist and co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy, among other social scientists, believes that wellbeing involves three essential characteristics:

  • autonomy – a sense of control
  • connectedness – the quantity and quality of relationships
  • competence – effectiveness

The more autonomous, connected, and competent people feel, the greater sense of personal wellbeing they will feel. Conversely, when people feel those qualities eroding, they will feel a decline in wellbeing.

In addition to the physical health risks associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, people are experiencing psychological stress. Many individuals feel that current events are overwhelming them, knocking them out of their routines, and causing them to lose control of their professional and personal lives. With the uncertainty of the near-term, it’s not surprising that people would feel they have lost a great deal of control over their lives.

As the pandemic leads government officials to suggest or order people to stay at home, practice social distancing, and limit even essential activities such as grocery shopping, people are losing their sense of connection to other people including neighbors, extended family members, friends, colleagues, and more.

During the coronavirus pandemic, people are grappling with their feeling of competency when facing new conditions. Many have set-up a home workspace for the first time. Others are learning new technologies to communicate more effectively with others.

People want to have a sense of wellbeing. The more autonomy, connectedness, and competency they feel, the better they will feel. Generally, people will seek to engage in behaviors that enhance their sense of wellbeing. Furthermore, they will appreciate individuals and organizations that help them obtain greater wellbeing.

So, what does all of this mean for legacy fundraising (i.e., a key type of planned giving)? To begin, it means the following:

  1. Legacy fundraising communications that “lead with death” need to be shelved.

Many fundraising professionals are accustomed to being direct. Being blunt. Making the ask. Making it early and often. That may be fine for some types of fundraising. While this type of approach was often less than ideal for legacy fundraising prior to the pandemic, this is even more true right now. This is not the time to lead with death. In normal times, this will create some pushback. In these times, expect it to create massive pushback.

Yes, you should absolutely communicate with your organization’s supporters. Moreover, those communications should be about delivering value to the donor. Through your outreach, you should strive to enhance each individual donor’s sense of wellbeing.

  1. Now is the time to be “top of mind.”

Most people tend to put off estate planning in normal times. For example, in the U.S., most adults over 50 have no Will or Trust documents. From what we know about avoidance, such delay is no surprise. But, from a massive longitudinal study in the U.S., we also know when those plans are made and changed. The typical triggers for planning fall into one of two camps, family structure changes or “death becomes real.” Family structure changes include marriage, divorce, birth of first child, birth of a first grandchild, and widowhood. “Death becomes real” includes diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, stroke, moving to a nursing home, or actually approaching death (measured retrospectively).

Right now, many people are living the “death becomes real” experience. Consequently, there is a major upsurge in Will document completions – particularly online. Some sites are reporting greater than 100 percent week-over-week increases in completed documents.1 The Remember a Charity website, which promotes legacy giving for the U.K. charity sector, has experienced twice as many people visiting its “Making A Will” page as would do so normally.2

As “death becomes real,” people are also increasingly expressing interest in life insurance.3 One online life insurance agency saw the most ever monthly applications and sales in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic gained traction. Another online life insurance agency saw an increase in applications of more than 50 percent since February.

We know from experimental research that the charitable component of an estate plan is, for many people, highly fluid. In one experiment with British solicitors (lawyers), simply asking the question, “Would you like to leave any money to charity?” more than doubled the share of people including charitable gifts in their Will documents. Even small alterations in the wording used to describe such gifts results in dramatic changes in both charitable intentions and actual document contents.

For a charity, being “top of mind” at the moment in which people are actually planning is absolutely critical. More people are planning right now than in any normal time. Clearly, this is the ideal time for your charity to be communicating about gifts in Wills and even beneficiary designations. However, the language of how you communicate is most critical.

When viewed through the social scientist’s lens of individual wellbeing, the enhanced interest in estate planning is not surprising. Drafting a Will or purchasing a life insurance policy is a way for someone to feel a sense of autonomy or control over the current situation. Through these actions, they can enhance the feeling of attachment from relationships with those they love as they make plans to take care of these people. When successfully achieving their estate planning objectives, including supporting values and causes that have been important in their lives, individuals will feel an elevated sense of competency. In other words, a major reason we now see a spike in interest in Wills and life insurance is that it gives people an enhanced sense of wellbeing.

If communications from charities also enhance a donor’s sense of wellbeing, organizations may find that their donors will have greater interest in supporting them with a commitment in a Will or through a life insurance beneficiary designation. In other words, helping a donor feel better may ultimately benefit the charity.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Is this the best time or the worst time to be communicating about legacy gifts? Actually, it is both.

People are planning like never before because they seek to take care of their families, usually the first priority of those doing estate planning even in the best of times. The challenge for charities is that we need to be at the top of their minds when people are ready to make their plans. It’s definitely the best time for legacy fundraising. Furthermore, by engaging people, fundraisers have an opportunity, like never before, to perform a real service by helping donors enhance their feeling of wellbeing.

On the other hand, talking about legacy planning can be offensive like never before. People are emotionally-poised to lash out strongly against such death reminders. Take one step in that direction and the risk-averse herd animal known as your executive director will be ready to end your career. It can very-well seem like the worst time for legacy fundraising, particularly when done the wrong way.

We’re not talking about opposing camps. Instead, individual donors are experiencing both of these paradoxical orientations to one degree or another.

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