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How Neuroscience Can Guide Your Legacy Communications

AHP Staff
Published:  05/24/2018

Adapted from a presentation by Fraser Green, Principal & Chief Strategist, Good Works and Denise Fernandes, Senior Director of Philanthropy, St. Michael’s Foundation, at the 2018 AHP Convene Canada conference in Ottawa, ON

Consider a planned gift to our foundation and maximize your tax benefits. We offer many ways for you to achieve your goals, such as direct bequests, charitable gift annuities, charitable remainder trusts or designating the foundation as a beneficiary of your life insurance. Contact a member of our planned giving staff today to get started.

Did you make it through that paragraph? Many of your potential legacy donors won’t. If that’s how your legacy giving communications sound, you aren’t tapping into the right part of your prospects’ brains.

We’ve learned more about the human brain in the last decade than in the rest of human history put together. Neuroscience tells us the brain has three distinct areas:

  1. Instinct rules.
  2. Emotion comes second.
  3. Thinking is third.

As fundraisers, we spend most of our time talking to the thinking brain when the other two are more powerful. If we can speak successfully to donors’ instincts and emotions, we’re going to do a much better job.

How do we do that? You need to know your legacy prospects and tailor your communications to tap into the instinctual and emotional parts of their brains.

Leading philanthropy researcher Russell James, JD, PhD, CFP, has studied the visual representations of donor decisions in the brain. James found bequest decisions come from the autobiographical part of the brain.

Your potential legacy donors are typically older than 60 and in the stage of life when they reflect, teach and ask existential questions. What will be said about me after my death? Was my journey meaningful? How will my story continue?

What does this mean for your communication with legacy donors? Don’t rely on logical information that addresses the thinking part of a prospect’s brain, such as tax benefits or even a focus on your organization’s need. Instead, help the prospect visualize how a bequest to your foundation can establish or extend a legacy beyond their lifetime.


  • Russell James has found stories about living legacy donors work best. Use current members of your legacy society as champions. Prospects considering a legacy gift can benefit from hearing stories of peers who have found fulfillment by leaving an organization.
  • Fraser Green uses a 40-30-20-10 formula for legacy giving stories: 40 percent of the piece is about the donor, 30 percent about your cause, 20 percent about your organization and just 10 percent about the gift.
  • Interviewing is 60 percent of the work, says Green. If the interview is conducted thoughtfully and thoroughly, using the right questions, the writing is easy. Two of Green’s favorite prompts are “Tell me about growing up,” and “Who taught you to be generous?”
  • There are two words you should never use in your communications: planned giving. To a donor, every thoughtful gift they make is planned. Instead, use phrases like “legacy giving,” “gift of a lifetime,” “gift in your will” or “charitable bequest.”
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