Wills can be a touchy subject. For many people, the thought of estate planning gives them the heebie jeebies. It’s planning for a world after their death, and that’s enough to put anyone off. Yet there’s a side of estate planning that many people don’t consider, and it’s not just for the rich and famous.
Charitable bequests have become a major part of fund raising, because, as a financial planning technique, they are both on the rise and a very good idea. Especially for Millennials, a generation known for both its shaky finances and strong social commitment, estate planning can be a way to help out a beloved cause without actually going into hock.
As Russell James of Texas Tech University noted in his research on the subject, among "adults aged 55 and above who have completed a will or trust there is an increased trend to include a charity as a beneficiary," with likelihood of estate giving going up by nearly a quarter from 2000 to 2010. Planned giving, including estate planning, has become a major facet of fundraising drives at virtually every level.
The appeal is simple: it’s a way of knowing that ideas and causes you care about are being taken care of. For those without immediate family (for example, individuals or childless couples), it can also be a way to pass on money without having to figure out who’s who among the various cousins. Doing this does take some real planning, though, because, like all estate work, the devil is in the details.
“One thing we talk about is that you never want to be doing philanthropic planning in a vacuum," said Sara Montgomery, senior fiduciary manager with Wells Fargo’s Philanthropic Services Group. Her team advises clients on how to give their money and works frequently with those who want to donate some after death. The first thing she suggests is having a sound strategy to make sure nothing else gets shortchanged.
“Most of the time, the philanthropy is the icing on the cake,” Montgomery said. “What we find is that most of our clients want to look at that once they have the financial piece and the estate piece on solid ground.”
First things first: make sure that future generations don’t suffer based on the commitments you make today.
“Hindsight is 20/20, and this can be the same thing,” Montgomery said. “We wouldn’t want someone to make a significant philanthropic commitment and then look back and say, ‘I wish I would have known this.’”
Regret, in particular, should cause would-be donors to take care with the difference between a revocable and an irrevocable bequest. Once money has been pledged in exchange for something, say particular benefits from the organization, your estate may not be able to claw it back. Things can easily become a problem, say for the 25-year-old who pledges his entire estate in exchange for a pile of PBS tote bags… and then goes on to have three kids.
Now, this approach is not new. Charitable bequeathments are a popular way of giving money -- and have been for a long time. Yet the trend is headed upward. Increasingly more and more people are choosing to give after death, as a way of getting meaningfully engaged with causes they care about.
Engagement, in fact, is key. As Montgomery’s group has experienced, at the same time as giving has been on the rise so, too, has been donor engagement. People want to see the results of their gift now… even if it won’t arrive until much later.
“Historically what you see is a lot of folks have named institutions, and the institution is not aware of it,” she said. “There’s sort of a privacy factor.”
“What we’re seeing, especially with donors that maybe are younger and very successful, is they want to make those contributions right now and they want to be communicating with the organization right now about how those gifts are going to be used and deployed,” she added.
Groups as diverse as NPR, the Red Cross and universities include appeals for donors to consider them in their wills, for good reason. Institutions that intend to be around for decades or centuries can wait for giving, especially if that means the gift will be that much larger in the end.
It’s also a way to solicit without the donor feeling quite so pressured. They can give without giving today.
“It continues to grow,” said Todd Bailey, the assistant vice president for development for the University of Michigan. “It is an extremely important part of what we do, [and] we generally account for about 20% of our goal coming from bequests or planned giving activity.”
As a major research institution, the University of Michigan actively seeks out donations from alumni and others in the form of bequests. It’s something that “every gift officer thinks about,” according to Judith Malcolm, a senior director with the University’s development office.
“I’ve just gone through this kind of planning,” she said. “When you’re thinking about your estate planning you don’t really know how much you need [for your family]. And if you have a fixed amount of money, as many of us do now or when we’re retired, you don’t know how much money you’ll need.”
“[But when I die] I can leave the rest of my estate to the University of Michigan if I want to," she added. "I’m not taking anything away from my family, from my care, but whatever is left I can give.”
And in the meantime Michigan, like most institutions, treats the donor like he'd given today, engaging him with students and campus life so he can see where the money is going.
“It is,” Bailey pointed out, “a real lifetime experience that they want to have in addition to their estate.” The catch is to keep it all in proportion.
While estate giving is on the rise and an effective way to give assets without sacrificing quality of life, too many people see it as an excuse to feel like they own the place. That’s bad enough when a massive donor demands his own slot on the campus radio station, but for someone with only a few thousand dollars to give, it’s just plain eye-roll-inducing.
“We have clients where they are just trying to figure out what’s appropriate when they make a gift to an organization,” Montgomery said. “They’re saying, ‘Well I don’t want to burden them,’ and we’ll say you just gave them a half a million dollars. You can ask for some information.”