Legacy Society

Recognize and thank donors today for the good of their future gift.

The purpose of the donor recognition society is synonymous with the mission of your organization.  It is the vehicle for ensuring your mission’s future.  This society helps you thank your donors for their future gifts during their lifetimes. 

Benefits of a Recognition Society

·         Lift up your givers – Celebrate and thank them for their gifts, and keep them excited about the wonderful things their gift will do.  It also demonstrates to potential givers that they will be honored.

·         Strengthen the bond – Those who have left a planned gift already feel a real connection with your organization.  Now they’ve promoted you to the status of family member in their estates.  A recognition society reciprocates by acknowledging them in a special circle of your organization’s family – those who care deeply about your mission’s future even after their lifetimes.

·         Stay in their plans – Recognition societies help keep your connection.  Losing your connection risks losing their gift.  The most common planned gifts (most notably bequests) are revocable.  When your donor is reviewing their estate plans, your continued connection will keep them mindful of the good that your organization can do with their gift.

Should You Have One? 

Yes, for non-profit organizations.  A well-implemented recognition society is an outstanding relationship tool.  The strongest case against a recognition society in a non-profit organization springs from concern that the resources are not available to do it well. 

Usually yes for churches, yet for churches a recognition society has proven a bit more delicate.  The congregation or a portion of its membership may perceive a recognition society as a way to elevate certain members based on a significant financial contribution.  If this negative perception is hardwired in a significant portion of the congregation, then a recognition society may be counterproductive.  In such cases it may be practical to forego a recognition society – or at least postpone it for the time being.  On the other hand, if those opposed represent a small percentage and are open to hearing more, a recognition society is possible if its purpose is well-communicated.  Emphasize that:

  • It is a fellowship of members who are ensuring the continuation of the mission after their lifetimes.

  • This connects those members and supporters who have self-identified as investors in your mission past their lifetime, and ANY member is invited to propose themselves to be a part of this group.

  • You honor all gifts.  There is no minimum gift size.  It is wise to acknowledge that smaller gifts may often represent the greatest sacrifice.

Time sensitive:  Once the decision-making process on whether or not to have a society exceeds several months, the issue grows dramatically less likely to come to conclusion.  It is not unusual for momentum to fade.  The bottom line:  make the decision, and move on it.

Starting a Donor Recognition Society

Vision:  Your pitch -

Put together a very brief compelling statement on what a planned gift will mean/do.  Center your efforts on this vision.  The recognition society is a primary tool, but it is not the end goal. 

What’s in a Name –

Often an organization chooses a historical figure as title to their recognition society.  This acknowledges (1) that the current donors are a part of this family’s continuum of stewards and (2) that builders of its past have been critical to its future and (3) future members honor their predecessors’ contributions.  Other societies are named after a unique quality of the organization.  Occasionally it is named after the organization itself.  A word of caution for churches:  Many members in congregations may perceive the term “society” as elitist or exclusive.  It may be wise to consider alternative words that emphasize inclusion, like “circle” or “fellowship”.

Minimums –

Non-Profit Organizations:  Minimums are common, expected and appropriate.  This will need to vary on the type of organization and donors that you may have.  You may also consider tiers to honor your major gifts

Churches:  Do not set a minimum to join.  Establishing a minimum opens your church to the elitist accusation.  Set a minimum, and you will receive many calls reminding you of the “Widow’s Mite”.  

Resolution –

Propose to your governing board a resolution to establish a recognition society.  This is important to show it as an official effort of your organization and to get your leadership’s buy-in for the effort.

Gift Acceptance Policy –

Pre-determine and codify in policy what gifts are acceptable to your organization. 

Planned Gift Notification Form –

Donors can use a form where the donor notifies the leadership or development office of their gift, interest in the recognition society and any giving preferences or restrictions. 

Easy to Join or Learn More – Many donors are hesitant to inform you of their gift, so don’t make it hard for them.  Establish one primary point of contact for all inquire, and educate all staff on this effort.  Be approachable.  Make it really easy to join or to request more information.

Start with Your Easy Donors –

It is appropriate (and easy) to start your planned giving asks the leadership and governing board level.  They are often excellent resources for helping the planned giving effort.  Then it should be easy to approach long-time members and supporters who are clearly aligned with your mission and enthusiastic about your future.

Prove It –

Do we require they prove their gift to you?  This answer depends upon the organization:

Yes for non-profit organizations.  Generally the donors for a non-profit organization expect that there are minimums and that there is some documentation required of their gift.

No for churches.  Most congregation members are spiritually connected with you.  It is extremely unlikely that a member will claim to make a planned gift and not truly have done so.  In churches it is more awkward and can backfire to ask a member to document their planned gift, although it has been done quite well in several cases.

For all organizations it is very worthwhile to recommend (but not require) that the donor shares details of their gift so that the leadership can ensure that their wish is properly documented and that any restrictions are clear and executable.  After all, you are all on the same team and want to provide for the future of your mission.  There have been easily avoidable situations where very generous gifts became overly complicated or even unusable.  This would have been upsetting had the donor known.

Record and Track –

Non-profits often use database software to track their donors and recognition society members.  This database software can be range from the very sophisticated and expensive to more basic and relatively modest priced.  Raiser’s Edge from Blakbaud is often considered the gold standard.  Smaller organizations might work well with smaller providers like Little Green Light.  Churches have a record keeping challenge with planned giving, because there is no planned giving committee access to official business/donor data.  In fact, it is common for planned giving committees to maintain their own database separate from the church’s records.

Expectancies –

What future gifts might your organization expect?  You will not know all of your planned givers, nor will you know all of the amounts.  Still it is worth a very respectful and polite campaign to learn.  Let donors know that it is helpful to know certain details about their gift, the amount and any other relevant details or restrictions.  They may be more interested in sharing if they realize that often gifts and their restrictions may need slight tweaks in order to be blessings to your organization.  Provide a compelling reason for your knowing this information or else it may appear intrusive (particularly in churches).  A few will share quickly; many will prefer not to share details or amounts.  What they share is, after all, their decision.

Acknowledge and Thank:

Personal – This is always appropriate.  Acknowledge the gift and thank the donor when they have identified themselves.  Continue this connection to secure the bond with your organization.

Public acknowledgement – This is appropriate only when you have the donor’s permission.  Some common tools to accomplish this:  plaque or wall of recognition for society members, include members in the annual report and other publications, and include articles and testimonials in newsletters and magazines.

Anonymity:  It is important to keep your recognition society members confidential until they notify you that they are willing to be acknowledged.  The best time to capture this is in a donor response card or gift notification form.

Token of Appreciation – Many organizations offer small tokens of appreciation to members of their recognition society.  The most common examples are lapel pins, plaques, coffee mugs…  These are affordable and easy ways to keep the planned giver connected with your organization, window decals….

Marketing/Communications – Prepare wants to celebrate your recognition society and how your supporters can plan their gifts.  The options are many and rapidly expanding:  Brochures, your website, booklets, mailers, letters, social media. Don’t get overwhelmed.  Identify what will most appeal your supporters, and focus on that.  PEER Network has a wide variety of these resources that can be customized to your organization.  


Pre-Launch is when it all happens.  If executed properly, you will realize your most dramatic increase in membership during your pre-launch phase.  This may last up to 18 months.  Use this period to gather your founding members.  Gather as many founding members as possible, and after your official launch you should actually expect a lull.

Pre-Launch Recruiting:  Founding members will be those who are members at the future launch date.  Your goal is to get as many founding members as possible by your gala launch event.  The first you will wish to invite will be your organization’s leaders/governing board.  It is priceless to declare to potential donors that our board/Session members have already made planned gifts.  Next approach pillars and long-time supporters to be founding members.  Ask if you might list them as founding members and on invitations to invite others to join.  You might also solicit their inputs on how they would envision a successful planned giving program and even on naming the society. 

Hold informational sessions on planned giving to your organization.  Include literature and response cards on planning a gift and how to sign up for your recognition society.


Hold an annual event for recognition society members and prospects, and provide society members with a lapel pin or sticker.  Have a donor tell their story of what the organization means to them.  Ask for a story (or read a letter) from someone who has benefited (preferably from someone whose life has been changed) from your organization’s mission.

Recognizing Members Regularly – Be sure to keep planned givers connected to you.  Thank them (as a group and as individuals if appropriate) in newsletters, on your website, during church services. 



All are invited to be a part of the Legacy Circle.  The Legacy Circle has been formed as an opportunity for the ___________ Church family to express gratitude for your love and deep care for future generations through your legacy gift.

While legacy gifts are often the most significant gift we make, anyone may become a Legacy Circle member - regardless of amount committed.  This fellowship is for those of any and all means who are excited about passing what we have been given to those who follow us. 

Please consider becoming a member through sharing your story and some basic details.  Why share?  Because your story and the gift details make your gift far more powerful and effective:

•      Your story is a part of the fabric of this church.  It is a gift to those who might never meet you who are enriched by knowing you, who have passed this ministry on to them.  It may also inspire them to also lift up future generations.

•      The _______ family wants to honor your legacy gift by treating it responsibly.  We know that you want your gift to make an impact.  We are better capable to live up to that when we have any advance information about your gift that helps us plan for it and to foresee common – and easily avoided - obstacles.  On average, legacy gifts that the church anticipates normally are put into action far more efficiently than unexpected gifts.