How saying No to a donor can end up in a legacy pledge

Published by Elsbeth Takkenberg on

As a relationship manager special gifts, I speak to a lot of donors about including Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) in their last will. Not only do donors want to know what difference their gift will make in the lives of people that urgently need medical aid, victims of war and natural disasters. But donors also like to talk about their personal life, their personal situation, their values and beliefs.

In my experience, a conversation about legacies often leads to people sharing the story of their life with me. Conversations I really love. Spending an afternoon with a donor talking about their experiences in life and the choices they have made, also for including MSF in their will, are very dear to me and to MSF.

I feel free to discuss as much as possible with them. Sometimes problems need to be discussed and it happens that people ask me to tell them how they can make sure their annoying little cousin does not inherit. How their secret lover can inherit, but also their husband. Of course I listen to these stories. And after listening, I kindly inform them to visit their notary for legal advice. It’s our ethical belief that a relationship manager (and specially one from a neutral, impartial and independent organisation) does not advice people about who will inherit and who won’t.

But in some cases personal stuff is discussed that does concern our organisation. People want to know if it’s possible to earmark their legacy gift and how. People ask us if we want to be their executor of the will. Or even: in case we are executor of the will, do we want to make sure their best friend receives their diaries? In most cases we can say yes, but sometimes we have to say No to a donor.

Of course, saying No to a donor is scary. Will we lose the donor? Will saying No drive the donor into the arms of another organisation? How big is our loss, financially? Saying No takes courage, and of course a lot of discussions within the organisation and with the donor. When do we say No? The reasons for saying No to a donor are always based on legal, ethical and practical grounds.

This year I had to say No to a donor twice. And in both cases, eventually we DID end up in their last will. It turned out that both donors really liked the open and honest way we spoke to them, and the arguments we had. Although we had said No to them, their trust in the organisation had become even bigger. And that (after all) positive feeling of getting the No had made them visit their notary and include MSF in their last will. Maybe not in the way they wanted it to be in the first place, but in a way both donor and organisation are comfortable with.

And I think that’s the essence of legacy fundraising: building trust and making sure we are worth it.

Elsbeth Takkenberg

Elsbeth works as senior fundraiser at VUmc Cancer Center Amsterdam. She has previously worked for Medecins Sans Frontieres, Plan Nederland and the University of Amsterdam. She is specialized in major gifts and legacies and is passionate about building strong and long lasting relationships between NGO's and donors.


david heyer · December 12, 2011 at 15:13

Nice stuff Elsbeth!

Simona · December 13, 2011 at 17:30

Very interesting post, Elsbeth! Receving a will from a donor is a delicate issue to deal with: building a clear and transparent relationship with the donor requires a balanced attitude between needs and will. And – I completely agree with you – saying No could be considered quite dangerous for the organization. On the other hand, saying Yes to not dissatisfy the donor…uhm, seems really disrespectful towards him and, let me say, towards the people who will have manage the legacy!

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