Planned giving—you’ve likely heard of it before, but if you’re like many church leaders, administrators, and fundraisers, you haven’t considered trying it out yet.

This is a transformational church fundraising method that can deepen your relationships with congregants and ensure your church’s long-term financial stability. But is planned giving, also often called legacy giving, the right choice for your unique church and community?

Let’s take a closer look in this guide. We’ll provide some context about planned giving before diving into some specifics, including its benefits for churches, common concerns that churches have, and the first steps you can take to build it into a new giving program.

What is planned giving?

Planned giving refers to donations given to your church through donors’ estate or financial plans. Most commonly, they’re deferred and given as bequests in a donor’s will after they pass. Legacy giving refers specifically to these kinds of deferred gifts that are given as a tribute and testimony to the donor’s relationship with your church and community.

Other types of planned gifts like trusts and annuities involve more complex financial planning and can be worked out with donors who express interest. 

However, bequests are by far the easiest way to get started for newcomers because they’re highly accessible and easy to create. Plus, whether donors choose to create bequests or not, many will appreciate the reminder to make or update their wills!

Why is planned giving beneficial for churches?

Before deciding to try out a new form of fundraising (and long before promoting it to your congregants), you need to understand why it’s worth your and their time. When you see how and why planned giving benefits your church, you can better plan your program and have more productive discussions with donors. Let’s take a look:

Benefits for Churches

  • Planned gifts are uniquely meaningful and can enrich your relationships with church members, creating opportunities to demonstrate their commitment and gratitude to Christ and your community. Larger gifts that help fund buildings or programs also create ways to celebrate families’ deep roots with your church.
  • These gifts are unrestricted unless specified by the donor, meaning you can use them to help cover essential operating costs and keep your church growing.
  • A planned giving revenue stream is predictable, helping you stabilize and diversify your funding for long-term growth. 
  • Planned gifts are inclusive, more than many fundraisers initially assume. Anyone can create a bequest, and since they’re given from saved assets rather than cash, you might be surprised by the number of individuals who choose to commit a relatively significant gift.
  • Planned giving is an effective form of risk management for churches that rely heavily on cash donations from older congregants.

Benefits for Church Members

  • Planned gifts allow church members to give back to your church in an especially impactful way since these gifts are so beneficial for long-term stability.
  • They provide a range of tax benefits that may be great motivators for congregants who are proactive about estate planning and are concerned about the potential tax impacts of inheritance on their heirs.
  • Planned giving starts new conversations about end-of-life planning and helps church members approach it with a productive, faithful, and philanthropic mindset. 
  • Beyond the straightforward benefit of giving back, these gifts are unique opportunities to reflect your church’s values, demonstrating faith and commitment to the community you’ve built together for Christ. 

Considering these benefits, planned giving is a wise investment of time and resources for any church that accepts donations and tithes. And for donors, a mix of these motivations can come into play. Remember that planned giving is highly accessible because bequests are easy to create and have no minimum value requirements.

What holds churches back from planned giving?

Despite these benefits, many churches hesitate to pursue planned gifts. This is true for many other types of nonprofits, too, and it makes sense. There are many reasons why this might happen, first of all being the fact that deferred gifts, estate planning, and end-of-life planning are touchy topics.

However, churches’ common concerns about planned giving might not represent the massive hurdles you think they do. Let’s take a look at five of the most prevalent concerns:

The most common concerns that churches express about planned giving, discussed in the rest of the section below.

Perhaps you’re concerned that:

  1. Planned gifts are difficult to discuss.
  2. Asking for planned gifts might come off as too money-focused.
  3. It’s an unfamiliar and complicated way to give that your church isn’t equipped to handle.
  4. Asking for planned gifts could make your members tired of all the appeals.
  5. Committing planned gifts might cause members to reduce their other donations.

FreeWill’s guide to planned giving for churches breaks down the reasons why these concerns shouldn’t hold you back if you’ve decided that planned gifts are a worthwhile priority:

  1. Your church plays an important role in congregants’ lives, and it’s up to you to offer guidance and support. Starting conversations about estate planning, accepting mortality, and demonstrating faith is helpful even if members choose not to give.
  2. Planned gifts bring outsized benefits to both parties—even if it feels strange to ask for donations, remember that planned gifts are special opportunities. When you articulate the amazing impact that they’ll have on your church, members will understand why you’re asking and feel motivated to help.
  3. Bequests are the most common type of planned gift because they’re easy to create. Donors simply add a short new section to their wills indicating a set dollar amount or portion of their estate to be disbursed to your church. You can provide templated language for this or use online tools that help members easily generate these addendums in minutes.
  4. All types of fundraising organizations share a fear of creating donation fatigue, and it’s not unfounded. But remember that planned giving operates with a different set of motivations and impacts. Again, by making it clear that these are special, ultra-impactful, one-time commitments, you’ll set planned gifts apart from your other fundraising appeals.
  5. On a similar note, it’s been found that planned gift donors don’t reduce their annual giving but rather increase it (by $3,000 more per year on average according to one study). The donors who understand the value of planned gifts and want to demonstrate their faith and gratitude in this way are highly unlikely to stop their usual contributions.

Of course, your church’s position, community, and fundraising needs are uniquely its own. Always weigh the benefits and potential drawbacks before moving ahead with any new fundraising program. 

What’s crucial, though, is understanding the extent to which your concerns are founded and what the actual impacts will be rather than pre-emptively shutting down a valuable opportunity (for funding, stewardship, and long-term stability) out of fear. Don’t let your vision for growth be limited or shifted off-course unnecessarily.

First steps: Start your church’s planned giving program

If you’ve decided that planned giving is worth exploring, what are the first steps to take?

Start small. There’s no need to rush into heavy investments when you can take your time and grow your program organically. The same guide linked above recommends these three fundamental (and easy) steps:

  1. Learn about your congregation’s current familiarity with planned gifts. A quick survey should do the trick! Ask church members 1) if they’re familiar with planned giving, 2) if they’ve already created planned gifts with your church or another organization, and 3) if they want to learn more. These findings will give you an initial baseline to start building your outreach strategy. You may even find that some members have already committed bequests without you knowing—if so, immediately reach out to thank them.
  1. Lay out the essentials for your program, namely recruiting an individual to take the lead with promoting planned gifts and tracking results. You’ll also need to gather a few essential tools, like an online bequest creation tool and educational resources that explain how bequests work. Important note: Your church should not provide explicit financial or estate planning advice; instead encourage church members to discuss potential implications with legal, tax, and/or estate planning professionals.
  1. Add planned giving to your existing fundraising materials. If your church already has a donation form or a thorough Ways to Give page on its website, add mentions of planned giving to them. If you can easily direct members to your website to learn more, it will greatly simplify the process of promoting your program. If you send annual appeals or include short fundraising appeals in newsletters, add unobtrusive mentions of planned giving there as well.

These essential first steps will cover your bases and make it easy to grow your program without immediately eating up too much of your time. 

Just make sure to implement an organized tracking system as your efforts take off. You’ll need a reliable way to track who you’ve reached out to, when, and whether they’ve committed a planned gift. This information will help you keep your outreach strategy moving forward and easily identify members to steward over time.

From here, you should have everything you need to build a thriving planned giving program

Take your time, listen to your church members, and refine your messaging—you’ll deepen your relationships with your community and secure a sustainable future for your ministry in no time.