Planned Giving Basics for Churches

by Robin Davis Sekula, Presbyterian Foundation

In 2017, Americans left $35.7 billion to nonprofits in their estates. Churches can be beneficiaries of this generosity – but it takes a good plan and a strong message to spur those gifts, says Karl Mattison, Vice President of Planned Giving Resources for the Presbyterian Foundation.

What’s more, when people create a bequest in their will, they increase their annual giving by 50 percent, Mattison reports. That’s primarily because of the nature of estate planning, Mattison says. “Planned giving is emotional and makes you think who am I, and who will I be after my lifetime?” Mattison says. “You have doubled down on what means the most to you and it is articulated in your estate plan. Those gifts shoot up because you’ve thought about what means the most to you.”

Church members are ready

Only 5 percent of Americans have charitable estate plans, Mattison says. While this number is low, what brings Mattison hope is this statistic: 23 percent of people say they’re willing to make a gift in their estate but have not done so. “In churches, that number will be larger,” Mattison says.

Churches do have more competition now for the donations from members, Mattison says, but churches have something that nonprofits never will: significant face time each and every week. “We can’t change the competition,” Mattison says. “But our churches have a competitive advantage, and it is significant.”

Church members spend their life’s most important moments at their churches, Mattison says. “That’s a person who cares what happens to this place after our lifetime,” Mattison says. “We are full of people who feel this way.”

Starting out

Mattison suggests churches make some groundwork decisions before the gifts start coming in:

  1. Endowment or reserve: where will planned gifts go?

  2. Distribution: how will funds be used?

  3. Committee and structure

  4. Policies

  5. Legacy circle

If you have the people and resources, Mattison suggests a planned giving committee separate from the finance or stewardship committees will gain momentum for a longer period of time. A crucial note: women aren’t always represented on these committees, and they should be, Mattison says. More charitable estate gifts are made by women than men. And on average women’s bequests are significantly greater than those left by men, Mattison says.

It’s important to have your policies dictate whether gifts go into an endowment: the church budget or reserves? “Don’t start from scratch because it will take you a few years to create these policies,” Mattison says. “Get some templates. Policies are critical. Be sure you know where the policies are kept.”

Talk about planned giving at church

Next: talk about planned giving in your congregation. Mattison got specific about how often to discuss it and where to do so. In one year, broadcast the following:

  • 12 blurbs in the church bulletin

  • 4 articles in the newsletter

  • 2 announcements from the pulpit

  • 1 legacy Sunday to recognize and honor those who have created a planned gift

Two more things: put information on your website about planned giving, as well as other ways to give, and have brochures on hand that discuss planned giving.

Stories that should be shared in these places should be inspirational and personal. Ask someone who loves the church and has honored it with an estate gift to speak during church about why they’ve given and what the church means in their lives. Tell stories of those who have passed and what their gifts meant to the congregation, and who they were.

One more key point that Mattison draws from a church experience: when someone calls the church and wants to discuss planned giving or something like a charitable remainder trust, be sure that those answering the phone know to respond enthusiastically and gratefully, and know who exactly should get that message. Be sure the call is returned within 24 hours.