A couple of days ago I found myself defending the importance of legacy giving. It was during a conversation with someone outside of the fundraising industry, so the easy assumptions I usually make weren’t there to support my case.

“Why is legacy giving important?” she asked.

Because it’s a fundraising practice with a great ROI, duh, I responded.

“Why is it important to have fundraising with good ROI (and what is ROI, anyways)?”

Because in the non-profit sector we have way too many things to do and not enough time to do them, duh. When we take action on fundraising, it’s important that the investment of time and resources gives us more than what we put in. Return On Investment = ROI. Duh. (Well, for industry insiders and experts anyways.)

“So why,” this outsider continued, “is it important to focus on legacy giving again? Are you saying that all other fundraising is a waste of time?”

Noooooo, that’s not really what I meant.

I thought some more.

I scrunched up my forehead and went way back into my mental filing cabinet. Past the industry jargon, past the snarky “duhs”.

Because, I finally replied, legacy gifts can be transformative.

“Aaaaaaahh,” she said, “Tell me more about this transformation.”

When we focus on raising money for this year’s budget, we make sure that we raise enough to pay the rent, to cover the cost of this year’s staff team, and we carefully measure our unallocated dollars against general operating costs while trying to make sure that our programming is innovative enough to attract specific grant funding. It is a delicate, and very necessary, balancing act. It’s what keeps many of us in the sector up at night. Will there be enough? How can we stretch and grow our impact? How much stretch is too much?

Yet, when we remember to look up from this crazy balancing act for just a little bit each week to move forward our legacy giving activities; for example, another phone call to invite a current donor to consider making a gift in their will, another story gathered for our next written communication, we open the door for transformative change.

We may not know when that decision to leave a gift in estate plans will be made, when the end of that person’s life will be, when that estate will be settled, but when it does, the impact it makes can be huge.

Real life transformations include:

The community art gallery went from managing a precarious budget to cover rent to benefiting from a legacy gift that allowed for the purchase of land and a purpose-built building. No rent, perfect home. Transformative.

The community foundation worried about how much to spend on administration costs vs. grants to community organizations. The work done in the community was obviously important, but the board members felt so burnt out. A sizable bequest arrived, and suddenly they could release more funds into the community AND afford a permanent staff person. Bigger impact, internally and externally. Transformative.

The community loan non-profit in a busy urban area went from feeling sooooo stretched in its lending – there were so many new entrepreneurs who needed the kind of hand up they could provide – to benefiting from a legacy gift that tripled their capacity to give. More money then applicants. Transformative.

The marine advocacy group that worked hard to advocate for conservation, yet felt their work was precarious, given all the control was in the hands of the government and the land owners of the waterfront in fragile ecosystems. They received a phone call from a lawyer informing that they had received, through a bequest, joint ownership of an island in the critical area, along with several other environmental charities. Protected ecosystem forever. Transformative.

All of these true stories warm my heart whenever I think of them. They are what keeps me patiently explaining legacy giving to everybody and anybody who will listen. ROI, no one really cares, duh, but really profound impact on making our communities and planet a better place? That’s what matters. That’s why we are here.

” Aaaaaaahh,” she said. “Now I understand why legacy giving matters.”

Do you have a story about a transformative bequest or other legacy gift? I’d love to hear it. Please share in the comments below or send me an email.

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