Charitable Donations In A Will

It is not unusual for a client to want to provide for a charity in their will. There are several motivations:

  • The want to provide their normal donation in perpetuity by creating an investment fund that will generate income.
  • As a thank you for some service they received
  • Because they value the work of the charity and its people.
  • Because they can and think society as a whole will value their gift.

Religious charities were once more common.

We know from studies that religious people tend to donate more to charity on an ongoing basis – about three times more. They also tend to give at death. That fundamental is changing and has been for a long time. Malcom Burrows of Scotiabank Wealth Management published an interesting article recently.

The Decline of Churches.

He observed that in 1967 more than 60% of registered charities were religious organizations and now there are just 29.7%.  I think part of that decline is because there so many charities now. 86,000, so about 27,000 congregations with a registration. That may not be numerically so much lower.

I would argue though that the real value of giving may be down more than a little. Decades ago we had a client who manufactured church envelopes. A fascinating product. The interesting manufacturing problem is that if you make 400 sets of envelopes for each of a 10,000 churches you will have more than 20 million envelopes. No two will be the same. They’ll have a different church name, a different set number, or a different date. That’s harder than printing letterhead.

They had records by church going back to the depression. By the early 1970s the big churches in Quebec were ordering 60% fewer sets than they had 30 years earlier. Malcolm comments on that in the article.

People are more reluctant to give to churches in

their will.

Aside from there being fewer committed religious donors, some don’t want to give to a local church because they fear their money would be lost to the community and taken by the upstream church. Not an entirely unreasonable concern. I had a client a few years ago who wanted to leave $1,000,000 to his local church, but could not bring himself to accept that only that congregation would benefit. He eventually went another route with the money.

Part of the reason churches have problems now is they have no coherent marketing message. Every message of the type should center around what the potential congregant will get. I have asked several people with several different denominations, “What is my advantage to deal with you?” Except for the Salvation Army, I have yet to hear a coherent answer. Most of the answers involve the good it will do for the church itself. No reason is commonly given why I should care about that.

Marketing seems so bourgeois to the religious, yet the skills work everywhere. Most of the time it requires the organization to change their way of doing what they do. Today, people buy nothing without a reason that works for them.

Churches can and should do good work. Many do but they have never thought it through strategically. They should.

What to think about.

This applies to both donors and charities. Donors operate on the basis of motive, means, and opportunity. For most charities means is the only factor. For some of the smarter ones, they have packaged ways that improve the result. (Better Opportunity) Only a few have a clear and compelling reason for why the donor should do it. (Motive) If I were advising a charity of any kind, I would ask them to start with what would motivate a donor. Bearing in mind that people like to be helpful but most of us cannot do the day-to-day work involved.  Instead  we do our part to help by writing  cheques so others that can, will do it.

The bits to take away

The charity playing field is changing. Charities cannot rely on their old image any more.

Learn to motivate donors and help them see more efficient ways to provide the money needed. Most people would be astounded to find how much donations can benefit their estate. Suppose you could give away the taxes your estate will owe. That sounds like fun.


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I build strategy and fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways and alternate timing to achieve both spending and estate distribution goals. In the past I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning, have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email to don@moneyfyi.com

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