How to use emotions to get results in your legacy marketing

publication date: Mar 19, 2014
author/source: Simon Trevelyan

If you haven’t already read the ground-breaking research on planned giving and the brain by Dr. Russell James, you should. This research is already profoundly changing the way the planned giving profession operates. His finding, that emotion (as opposed to information) is the key to deciding to make a charitable legacy, will sooner or later change the way that all of us approach our work and our donors.

This may come as a shock to many of us who have been trained to advise donors about gift planning options and tax savings, but the reality is that most of the technical information we provide prospective donors is unlikely to have much impact on their decision to leave a legacy. In fact, in some cases, it may actually be a detriment to leaving a charitable legacy. Why? Because providing donors with estate planning information is about their own death (not something donors want to think about, much less talk about with a virtual stranger), whereas legacy engagement is about how their values can continue to live on in the world. 

If information on how gifts can be made isn’t a motivator, then what does trigger legacy giving? Fortunately, by pinpointing the precise part of the brain that donors use when thinking of charitable legacies, Dr. James was able to help us answer this critical question.

Legacy giving is connected to the autobiographical area of the brain. This tells us that a donor’s meaningful life events, their experiences, their values, and their life stories are critical to the legacy process. If our legacy programs are to be successful we have to find ways to connect to these in a meaningful way. 

Knowing this, how can we market and solicit legacy gifts more effectively?

Check your program focus
  • Is your program focused on advising donors how to make legacy gifts? If it is, you are unlikely to generate many legacy gifts.
  • Is your program focused on your organization’s history, what you do and how successful you have been? If it is, you may still have a difficult time generating legacy gifts.
  • Is your program focused on the aspirations of your donors and linking this to your vision? If it is, then you have the basis for a successful legacy program.  

It’s not how gifts are made, it’s not what you do, or have done … it’s what your mission and vision mean to your donors.

  1. Be curious. Explore what motivates your donors to leave legacies to your organization. Ask your existing legacy expectants why they chose to include your organization in their final legacy. What meaning did it have in their lives? 
  2. Be genuine. Reflect and reinforce these motivations in your legacy materials with a legacy brand and key messaging that focuses on answering the question, “Why?” Share personal stories from those whose lives have been impacted by your organization, and from donors, volunteers and staff. 
  3. Be heartfelt. Donors want to be inspired! They are motivated by their strong personal connection to the work you do, the difference they can make for future generations and the meaning you have in their lives. Successful legacy engagement is about finding a way to pull on the heart strings of donors and connect with them in a profoundly personal way.

 Case study

Here’s a good example of how a charity has made an emotional connection with their donors to generate legacy gifts. Take a look at this short video from Union Gospel Mission (UGM). By featuring five people whose lives had been transformed by their organization, this video makes a powerful emotional connection and sets the stage for a legacy ask. Notice however, that it has almost no information about UGM, nor does it say anything about the mechanics of giving. 

Union Gospel Mission not only has a good legacy video, they also have an integrated marketing and solicitation system that makes sure the video is used to its maximum potential.

Individual donors are sent an email asking them to watch the video and then fill out a short on-line legacy survey. The survey asks donors about their values, their connection to UGM and its mission and vision, and stories they have about their connection to the work UGM does. In the final part of the survey the donor is asked if they would leave a bequest to UGM.

Donors who fill out the survey and express an interest in legacy giving, or have already left a legacy to UGM, are contacted and sent a legacy case for support. Continuing with the theme of the video, the case has a strong emotional appeal.

With this integrated approach, they’re already achieving results far above average, and that will continue for years to come as they reach out to their entire donor base.

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, visit, or come see the S.T. Legacy booth at the 2014 CAGP Conference in Vancouver – April 9-11th.

Click here to sign up for your monthly subscription to Gift Planning in Canada.

Like this article?  Join our mailing list for more great information!

Copyright © 2011-Current, The Hilborn Group Ltd. All rights reserved.

Free Fundraising Newsletter
Join Our Mailing List