Focus on Bequests

As we slowly and carefully emerge from the lockdown and begin the return to a less isolated Australia, and in the face of uncertainty and many economic challenges, it is timely to think about your institution’s future and the role that philanthropy will play in helping to secure that future.


Why focus on bequests now?

One key fundraising area that Australian research (JB Were 2018 Support Report – see table 49) tells us will provide one of the highest return on investment is bequests. However, we hear from some institutions that they are not doing any work in this vital area at this time, and that some have even cut back on resourcing a bequest program. A long-term aspiration of most of our institutions is a sizeable endowment that provides an income stream that supports the institution, especially in challenging times. The source of this highly valued endowment is primarily bequests and now is the time to be building your bequest pipeline.

Much has been written about the huge wealth handover from the baby boomers and yet, according to Australian research (QUTSwinburne University), less than 8% of Australians have included a charitable gift in their Will but many (over 60%!) would consider a bequest if engaged and asked.

Interestingly, recent media has reported on an increase in changes to Wills as people reflect on their values, what matters to them and get their personal affairs in order at this time. It’s an opportune time for your institution to be front of mind.

At this time of ongoing social distancing, the nature of some of your interactions may be different from what you have been used to in the past and perhaps your institution has not yet seen the possibilities for bequests without face-to-face interaction. Now is the time to be researching your bequest prospects, communicating and engaging with these people to build a strong pipeline of potential bequestors, updating your bequest resources, being pro-active in communicating gifts in Wills as an attractive giving option, and stewarding known bequestors.

To navigate this rapidly changing environment, you will need to know your benefactors better than ever and use those insights and understanding to better shape and nuance your approach in order to secure gifts in Wills for your institution’s future.

It is important to remember that this is not about obtaining a gift now in uncertain economic times, but a deferred major gift: a gift in a Will that will make a difference to your institution and give great joy and satisfaction to the donor.


Develop your Prospect List

This is the perfect time to review your records. You should build a prospect list that incorporates people such as those who have:

  • expressed interest in a bequest (a returned reply slip, conversation at an event, etc)
  • given three or more times to annual giving (they are already telling you they have an interest in and commitment to your institution)
  • been active volunteers (alumni events, archives, year group signatory, etc.) and shown their passion for your institution
  • a special link to a project or an area within your institution

In schools, bequests come primarily but not exclusively from alumni rather than parents. In universities, community members other than alumni can be very attracted to student support, research or subject areas. Those without children can be drawn to making a meaningful gift in their Will. If encouraged and welcomed, widows/widowers, may choose to stay connected with their late partner’s school or university and make a bequest that honours them.

Enter and track your bequest list in your prospect management system. Report monthly on your prospect activity and movement (e.g. number of prospects, contact calls, visits, written communication, etc.).


Communicate and Show You Care

Reach out and see how your community members are faring: set yourself the goal of making a certain number of ‘care and connect’ telephone calls every day. Undertake some research on the person so you can have a meaningful conversation: their location (interstate, overseas), circumstances and connection with your institution are all important. Ask how they are doing: listen!

Ask them what they are doing and how they are coping both with the lockdown and now as things begin to change. What plans (e.g. travel) have they had to put on ice? How is the family doing, are they in touch with children/grandchildren within Australia or elsewhere in the world? Establish genuine interest, concern and empathy. This takes time.

Don’t rush to impart information or suggest a bequest. Acknowledge the challenges your institution is facing around supporting students and other areas. Have stories about how you are coping and what your institution is doing to support students and staff.

Respond to questions about wills and bequests if they are raised but do not push the issue. Ask if there is anything you and/or the institution can do to help them, and also ask if you can keep in regular touch like this every few weeks or so.

Follow up your call with a note or email as appropriate. Depending on the culture of your institution, perhaps send them a card with a short hand written note, an item from the institution or archives that relates to them, a prayer card, a bookmark, a meditation, or a link to some information that was discussed.

Build a relationship and begin to understand their interests and potential giving areas (e.g. access/scholarships, buildings, co-curricular, research, etc.). As your relationship and trust develops, you can foreshadow a face-to-face meeting when the time is appropriate. Perhaps they would like to visit your school or university, attend a lecture, a musical or sporting event, meet some current student or the CEO. Make sure you keep detailed records of all the valuable information you are gathering from these conversations.

Ensure that your community outreach, as discussed in our earlier emails, is going to all your prospects and has a focus on what’s happening and how students and staff are coping. Use student photos and quotes to give them voice. Photos and short videos of students taken by smart phones are ideal to share as they are cost effective and provide a quick snap shot and connection. Birthday cards for decade or other birthdays can be a very effective initial contact point.


Resources & Collateral 

Now is the time to strengthen and update your bequest information so your institution communicates effectively during this period and is also ready for the post COVID-19 era. With time on their hands, people are reading more, so consider your website, the Impact of Giving Report and other publications and ensure they have bequest impact stories and/or bequestor endorsements. Hard copy has gravitas and longevity.

Some key areas:

  • What is your case for leaving a bequest to your institution? Is there a strong compelling case that’s consistently and visibly communicated? Does it talk about the future of your institution? If I’m sitting at home with some spare time reflecting on what I care about and thinking about my school/uni/college, where can I find information quickly and easily?
  • Undertake a desktop audit of peer schools and universities and look at their websites. Learn from them! Is your bequest information easy for potential bequestors and their solicitors to find or is it hidden behind three levels (or a firewall) and a bequest society name?
  • Is there some suggested bequest gift wording on your website to assist solicitors and the like? Or do you at least have a link to such advice? Is there a clear contact person and phone number and/or email address?
  • Review your community magazine and track whether or not you are telling impact of giving stories that include bequests on a regular basis.
  • Do you have a clear point of contact for phone enquiries? Does the general reception know?
  • Do you regularly offer an opportunity for community members to find out more about bequests?
  • If you have a bequest society as your stewardship and recognition vehicle, how visible is it? Is there a members’ list, photos of events, endorsement from members, etc.?
  • A bequest brochure that communicates your case and inspires action can be a great tool. This could be a very good time to do some desktop research of peer publications and re-write yours. Research the draft brochure and test it with some of your potential and known bequestors: seek their feedback, advice and input!
  • Take the opportunity to document bequest stories and collect photos from known bequestors and past bequests. Have a library of these for future use in your communication strategy and to enhance your donor records.
  • Review your upcoming Bequest Communications Plan for key publications (Annual Reports, Impact of Giving, Community Magazine, etc.) and develop a plan and timeline to deliver them in an appropriate format. It’s a great time to write and hone articles; research and document impact stories and donor experiences.
  • Is there a regular report on bequest activity to your Foundation or Advancement Committee and to your institution’s leadership?



This is also a productive time to be continuing to steward your known bequestors through ‘care and connect’ calls, mailing and emails. Whilst you cannot have an actual event, consider what you can do virtually: perhaps they can listen to a musical item that students did from home and recorded, listen to an alumni debate or information session, attend a virtual religious service, receive a special birthday greeting from a student, view some student art work, watch a video on a group of students returning and their reactions, or enjoy a morning/afternoon tea with you or others on Zoom.

One bequest manager dropped off hand sanitiser to some local bequestors and another dropped off cyclamens on Mother’s Day to some whom she knew had no local family.

All of this is about showing you care, your institution’s values and its enduring and real commitment to its community. This crisis is changing in its nature rapidly and will end at some point. When it does, the bequest relationships that you have developed during this time will ultimately pay off significantly.


Stay well. Stay connected. Stay focused.

Please feel free to get in touch with us to discuss any points which we raise here or how to develop a plan to get your bequest program underway or strengthened.