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Sophie W. Penney, PhD

About Sophie

Existential Dread and Planned Giving. Whaaaat?

Scratching your head? Are you quickly Googling the term existential dread? Let me save you some time.

When I am not consulting, I work at a university teaching in a certificate program in fundraising leadership. One day while walking down the hall I came across a flyer advertising a brown bag lunch about existential dread. Needless to say, I was taken aback by the “dreadful” sounding program title.

It may help to mention that the building in which I work is the home of the philosophy department and existentialism is a term used by philosophers, notably Sartre. You are still scratching your head, what do existentialism and existential dread have to do with planned giving? Well, everything.

Our Search for Meaning and How We Define Our Values

At its core, existential dread relates to our search for meaning and how we define our values. When we engage in authentic conversations with donors about a legacy gift, we are asking them to:

  • Reflect on their values, and
  • Identify what has given their life meaning.

The best planned giving professionals then invite prospective donors to connect their values and what has given their lives meaning to their philanthropic planning.

If thinking about existential dread is a bit too much for you, consider the work of David Solie, author of the book, How to Say It To Seniors: Closing the Communications Gap with Elders. Solie notes that the final developmental stage of life is considering what our legacy will be. Think about it, as Solie indicates, every other stage of life is a forward-looking one, moving from adolescence to adulthood, progressing from being a student to an employee, and even moving from working to retirement. However, as we move into what some call our “golden years,” forward thinking shifts to looking back.

Donors and Life Review: What Is the Role of a Fundraising Professional?

What role can a planned giving or fundraising professionals play as elders engage in this life review? We can introduce them to the concept of writing an ethical will or legacy letter.

Ethical wills arise from religious tradition but are not necessarily religious in nature. Like ethical wills, legacy letters invite the writer to focus on items such as who and what has mattered to them and why. Those crafting an ethical will or legacy letter might also consider the values they have held dear and who introduced those values to them (parents? church? society?), and then involves having the person record those values to share with future generations.

It’s not a significant leap from writing such a missive and considering to which causes or nonprofits we might want to direct an estate gift. The astute and caring professional treats this information with reverence. That same professional then thoughtfully employs the information to introduce the prospective donor to programs or projects that connect back to what has mattered to the donor.

This may all sound a bit heady but keep in mind that for about 20 percent of baby boomer women, a legacy gift may be one way in which they can pass their values on. Why? Well, it so happens that about 20 percent of baby boomer women never had children of their own.

For seven years I served as the development director for a continuing care retirement community. While there I came across individuals who felt they had already given to their children, others out-lived their children or other family members and friends. In these cases, people are often looking for nonprofits to which they can direct the resources they have accumulated over the course of a lifetime.

Want to know more about legacy letter writing? You are also welcome to contact me at [email protected] or to send a note via my website. I look forward to hearing from you.


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1 Comment

  1. Steven L. Meyers Ph. D. on June 13, 2018 at 9:16 am

    Beautifully written and thoughtful article. Took me a little by surprise. When developing gift agreements, it is possible to have more than just the “how” of pledges enumerated and payment schedules. It is somewhat rare but also possible to include a section (sometimes called recitals) that references the “why” and motivations of the donor. This is like a story that draws on deepest aspirations and What donors hope to achieve through their gift. Not every donor will have an accompanying legacy letter or ethical will. But the gift instrument itself can serve as an emotional “anchor” for their philanthropy.

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