Planned Giving Language – Words to Use and Avoid in Your Legacy Fundraising

There are two languages in fundraising – donorese, and organizationish. And, as often happens when people speak two different languages, miscommunication happens, and it obstructs the process. Are the words you’re using in your planned giving language the most effective way to communicate with donors? Or, are you confusing them and driving them away?

Let’s see what the research says!

The research you’re about to see comes from Dr. Russell James, who in 2021 was named to the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners Hall of Fame for his lifetime of work researching major gifts fundraising, including planned giving.

Most organizations tend to use language that they understand, and that aligns with similar language that shows up in their manuals and compliance resources. But those words aren’t always the words most donors use and understand.

So you need to decide when technical precision or clarity matters more. In donor communication – clarity matters more. You can use the technical language in legal documents. But you should avoid it in brochures, pamphlets, slides, or verbal presentations to donors.

That’s not our opinion – the research proves it. Let’s take a look.

Planned Giving Language Example 1 – Type of Gift

The first example from Dr. James’ research compared three phrases:

  • Make a gift to charity in my last will and testament
  • Leave a legacy gift to charity in my last will and testament
  • Make a bequest gift to charity in my last will and testament

Potential donors were asked about whether they would agree to make such a gift, and different respondents encountered one of these three phrases.

The number of positive responses plummeted with the second two phrases.

What does that tell us? It means the words ‘legacy’ and ‘bequest’ don’t connect with donors nearly as well as the simpler language that just says ‘make a gift.’ Everyone understands what ‘last will and testament’ means, and we’re familiar with the idea of giving to charity as part of that.

But ‘legacy gift’? ‘Bequest gift’? What’s that? This research suggests that most donors either don’t know, or simply don’t respond to those words as favorably.

The takeaway: Use simpler words in your planned giving language, and you’ll win more planned gifts.

Planned Giving Language Example 2a – Descriptive Language

In another of Dr. James’ studies, he compared several different phrases and tested which one prompted the most interest in wanting to read and learn more about the topic. The compared phrases were:

  • Gifts in wills
  • Estate giving
  • Legacy giving
  • Bequest gifts

His study revealed that people were twice as likely to want to learn more when encountering the phrase ‘gifts in wills’ compared to all the others.

This result aligns with the last one, but in a different context, further strengthening the idea that simpler planned giving language works best with most donors. Again, we know what it means to leave a gift in a will. The other language raises more questions than it answers.

Example 2b – Same Study

The same study also compared these three phrases:

  • Will planning
  • Estate planning
  • Legacy planning

And, for predictable reasons, the results came out similarly. Twice as much interest was recorded in ‘will planning’ compared to the other two phrases.

A Common Worry Among Orgs

At first, the takeaway here seems simple. Just stop using words like legacy and estate, and you’ll get better results from your planned giving fundraising. It’s a simple adjustment to make. It won’t bring down the house with a cascade of new donations – this is just one piece of the puzzle – but it’s one of the easiest pieces to make fit, according to research.


A common concern about this relates to the accuracy of the phrases ‘will planning’ or ‘gifts in wills.’ Any financial advisor will quickly confirm that these phrases do not incorporate all the complexity and breadth of options in estate financial planning. And they would be right.

Estate planning also includes things like living trusts, life insurance, transfer-on-death documents, and so much more that is actually distinct from ‘will planning.’

But here’s the thing about that:

Professor Adrian Sargeant looked into this, and Dr. James reports her conclusion in his book The Socratic Fundraiser. She found that most people are more likely – not less – to expect this full range of topics in the phrase ‘will planning’ than in other more accurate phrases like ‘estate planning.’

In other words, people understand that all of that other estate planning stuff is included in ‘will planning’, even if they understand it wrong.

What should we do with that?

Use the language people understand! When it matters, like in legal and official documents, you can use the more accurate language. By the time you reach that point with a donor, they’re not going to care because they’ve already made the decision to give. At that point, you’re just educating them on the finer points of estate planning.

But when discussing a gift, when emotion matters far more than logic and technical precision, use the language donors understand best.

Planned Giving Language Example 3 – Details

To drive this point home, in his same study as the one in example 2, Dr. James looked at how many people showed interest in reading more on a charity website when faced with these three phrases:

  • Gifts in wills
  • Gifts in wills, trusts, or retirement accounts
  • Gifts in wills, trusts, retirement accounts, or life insurance

These results were fascinating. The share of people saying they “might be” or “were definitely” interested in these topics was found to be 26%, 25%, and 24%, respectively.

In other words, it didn’t seem to matter which phrase was used!

Dr. James concluded that because each phrase began with the simple and commonly understood phrase ‘gifts in wills,’ you could add on more complexity after that and it didn’t bother potential donors.

Start Using Words that Connect in Your Planned Giving Fundraising

What you’ve seen today is what’s known as low-hanging fruit. It won’t solve all your planned giving fundraising challenges. But simply changing your planned giving language to reflect the clear and consistent findings from the research will only help your fundraising efforts.

Use simple language, not complex language. Talk about wills, not estates, bequests, or legacies.

Want More Words that Matter in Planned Giving?

What you’ve read here is just a taste of what Dr. James has researched regarding planned giving fundraising and the words that most effectively connect with donors.

He has studied words to use, and words to avoid, and we’ve compiled it all into a short eBook called Words that Work 2: The Phrases that Encourage Planned Giving.

It’s free, and you can get the eBook right here.


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Susan J Perkins
1 year ago

Good article! I was a practicing attorney before my career in advancement and fundraising (“advancement” is another word that most prospective donors aren’t familiar with and find confusing), and I try to be especially careful about not using technical or professional fundraising language with prospective donors when discussing charitable gifts.

1 year ago

Exactly! Insider terms are only useful inside an organization!

Emily Lash
Emily Lash
1 year ago

Susan, to someone who is relatively new to fundraising, what would you replace with “advancement?”

1 year ago
Reply to  Emily Lash

Emily, Dr. Russell James’ research found these two titles performed best with donors:
Director of Donor Guidance
Director of Donor Advising

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