Five Must-Do Actions of Bequest Fundraising

Five Must-Do Actions of Bequest Fundraising

If you’re serious about your organisation’s sustainability, having a bequest program is essential. Yet many charities are underperforming in this area. Here Fiona McPhee shows you how to get started on this significant form of fundraising.

When you consider how much effort and investment many charities put into different areas of fundraising, bequest fundraising often comes in last or is left out of the mix completely, most often because the return on investment cannot be realised in a 12-month budget.

Yet Pareto Fundraising’s Benchmarking results show that, year after year, bequest income is the largest growing income source from individuals (with 161% growth since 2007). Our 2017 benchmarking results show that the 82 participating charities combined received $408,346,208 in bequest income, representing 27% of all individual giving. By comparison, cash gifts (including appeal income) accounted for $331,897,916, regular giving (monthly gifts) accounted for $692,900,512 and events (including peer-to-peer) delivered $90,127,987. With the average bequest in Australia today over $59,000, just think of the future possibilities for your cause.

While it might feel like ‘big brands’ or major health concerns benefit the most from bequests, any charity that offers a solution to a problem that is going to impact on society in a positive way has the potential to solicit bequest income. In fact, the data shows us that organisations that have invested in bequest marketing over the past 10 years, regardless of cause or brand awareness, have grown their bequest income substantially against those that have not.

You must invest and commit to a longterm program. Although many bequests are reported as coming from people we have had no previous association with, the data shows us that more and more bequests are realised from known donors, with over 42% of 2016/2017 bequest income attributed back to a donor record (and we believe this is under representing due to insufficient data tracking).


There are a multitude of ways in which you could approach the development of a bequest program, for example having staff on the road making face-to-face asks, or direct response programs using mail, phone, press, digital or a combination of these.

There are some highly successful programs and there is no one magic formula. However, there are some things you can do to maximise your chances of success. Having had the opportunity to analyse and work on a broad range of bequest programs, these are the mustdos that underpin each successful program.


When it comes to getting started, the most frequently perceived challenge with bequest marketing is around raising this delicate subject with donors.

Don’t be afraid to bring up the subject – your best bequest prospects are the people who have supported to you loyally for years (be they donors, volunteers or members). They are engaged with your cause and want to know the best way they can help. Making a bequest is one of those ways.

But you need to get out there and ask. One of the reasons why donors don’t put a gift in their will to your charity is because it didn’t occur to them to do so. As fundraisers, we happily ask for donations. We need to ask for bequests too. What you can do Engage your organisation to support bequest fundraising and support the ask being made. Then push the organisation to commit to a long-term bequest fundraising strategy. You need to show donors this is important year after year.


The diamonds are in your database. You need to think about your data for a few different reasons:

  • data will help you determine what your typical bequest donor looks like.
  • it will help you identify bequest prospects.
  • thinking about how you will track bequest data will help your efforts in a systematic and organised fashion.

Like all fundraising areas, bequests budgets are not infinite – and most often they are the lowest proportion of our expenditure budget. It’s important that we spend our money with the best return possible.

The our bequests don’t seem to be coming from our donors insight often leads organisations to invest their bequest dollars in mass advertising or ‘wills days’ targeted at older audiences not necessarily already affiliated with the cause.

We know that not all bequests come from donor records already on your database – our data shows us that. But it’s increasing. And most importantly the biggest conversion of bequest prospecting comes from known donors.

The data also tells us that those most likely to put your charity in their will are your current supporters. These are the people who know you. They care about your cause, they believe in your vision and, as a result, they give you donations. And potentially a bequest. 

What you can do Ensure you are searching for every possible connection between a realised bequest and a past supporter (or service user). Learn who bequests are from and why they are being made today to inform your activity of the future. To do so target your best prospects first (segmentation and scoring models can be developed to aid this) and track all bequest interactions. Conversion can take years; use your data to help manage these long-term relationships.


Leave us a bequest is not enough of an offer – you need an appropriate bequest proposition, which needs to be emotive and compelling, showing the benefits of leaving a bequest to support your ask. When developing or assessing your bequest proposition, consider:

  • whether it presents a visionary proposition – this is your opportunity to be less tangible and more big-picture and future thinking in your approach.
  • timing – a bequest is for the future, not now.
  • presenting a benefit to the donor.
  • whether it is emotional and unique.

What you can do Approach your bequest program development like you would any other fundraising or marketing campaign – right message, right audience, right channel and right timing.


Use jargon-free language. And don’t drain the emotion from your messages. Fundraising that works is emotional – and bequest fundraising is no different.

Often the legal side of bequests overtakes our usually accessible fundraising speak. Your great acquisition approaches and successful appeals are based on simple, understandable language, as should all of your bequest communications.

What you can do Have someone external audit your bequest collateral. If it’s more than three years old consider redeveloping it as the market has changed and so have your supporters. We are finding that refreshed creative can aid in the conversion of prospects who may have seen previous collateral a number of times.


Just because one channel or approach has worked in the past does not mean it’s the only one available to you. Your supporter base is changing shape, your current donors are getting older and your new donors might be from a different generation to your historical support base.

What has worked for years could benefit from the testing of new approaches, which may appeal to those your current strategy has not yet motivated.

What you can do Perform a profiling, behavioural, demographic and motivational analysis on your best donors. Audit your bequest promotion, prospecting, conversion and stewardship activity. Or plan for each if you are starting from scratch, with consideration for your current donor preferences.


I have a will and three charities are in it. All three asked me to consider leaving them a bequest, each via a different channel, and each gave me a compelling reason to do so. I’m 40 – hopefully my bequests won’t be realised for many years to come but I expect over time more charities will find their way into my will as the charities I support continue to develop their bequest approaches to me.

Fiona McPhee
Fiona and the Pareto team work to review, analyse, benchmark and implement holistic strategies to improve fundraisers’ supporter service, donor journeys and donor care. For information about developing a better understanding of your supporters, driving better experiences and improving loyalty, email fiona.

This article was first published in Fundraising and Philanthropy Magazine 2017