Be ready to receive planned gifts with policies, procedures

September 17, 2021 by Nancy Crowe

In 2020, 28 percent of all charitable gifts went to religious institutions, said the Rev. Ellie Johns-Kelley, the Presbyterian Foundation’s Ministry Relations Officerfor the Allegheny and Chesapeake Region.

Only eight percent of Americans gave bequests to a church.

“Most of our congregations never think of raising the subject (of planned giving), and if they do, they do it occasionally, maybe every five to 10 years,” she said.

Even once a year, is raising the subject enough?

“Churches who do get bequests consistently have a plan,” Johns-Kelley said in the “Policies and Procedures for Managing Your Planned Giving Program” workshop at Stewardship Kaleidoscope in Cincinnati, Ohio. The annual conference was held Sept. 13 to 15, 2021.

Having clear planned giving policies doesn’t just get the topic out there. It lets potential donors know how their gifts will be received, managed and used. Building confidence and consistency in your church’s planned giving program is especially important as leadership and other factors change over time.

“You want to practice financial transparency. Let people know you’re ready to receive their gift,” she said.

What’s your vision?

After assembling a team for your planned giving program, the next step is creating a vision statement. This should explain the need for bequests and legacy gifts and demonstrate the difference such gifts can make in the life and work of the church. Keep it short and succinct at 300 words or less.

There’s no need to fear the blank page, though. The Foundation’s Stewardship Navigator tool walks users through questions to help craft a clear, concise statement, and in-person help is available too. Presbyteries also have resources, Johns-Kelley said.

The legacy circle

Planned giving isn’t just for the wealthy or heirless, Johns-Kelley emphasized. If a person leaves 10 percent of his or her estate to the church and the estate is a $100,000 house, that’s $10,000 the church can use, she said, recalling a conversation with a speaker on stewardship. Those gifts add up.

“Create a legacy circle where you celebrate those folks who made the decision. … We want to celebrate the decision while people are living. We want to hear the stories of how the church, the gospel and the body of Christ have made a difference in their lives.”

Policies pave the way

Having clear policies that explain how gifts are used brings clarity to the donor and session, and builds confidence in the program. They establish guidelines for what gifts can be accepted, create structure for their use, and develop criteria for how funds will be invested. A gift acceptance policy, fund management policy, investment policy statement and investment committee charter are needed, Johns-Kelley said.

People are more likely to give if it’s clear whether and how the gift will benefit the church, she said. “We know plenty of stories of churches who’ve received gifts and ended up fighting over what to do with it.”

Specific intent can be a problem. Suppose a donor sets up a fund in perpetuity for a memorial wreath in a particular window. “It’s a nice memorial, but that window may not always be there,” Johns-Kelley said. “We want these gifts to be enduring.”

Unrestricted gifts should therefore always be encouraged, but donors can discuss specific wishes with the session, she said.

Keep talking

Have an annual communications plan to keep conversations about planned giving going. “Remember 12, four, two, one,” Johns-Kelley said. That’s 12 bulletin blurbs, four newsletter articles, two testimonies from the lectern and one celebratory event each year to keep planned giving front of mind for your congregation.

“Don’t be afraid to ask about planned giving,” she said. “Always remember, though, you’re doing it in context. These are people you’re in relationship with.” Ask them to tell you about their love for the church, what drew them there and what inspires their generosity, she continued.

If nothing else, prepare your staff and volunteers, Johns-Kelley urged. If someone calls the church expressing interest in leaving a bequest and the person answering the phone simply takes a message, “you might lose that gift,” she said.

It’s much better if the volunteer or administrative assistant knows to say something like “Thank you, this is so exciting! I know our planned giving committee and the pastor will want to hear more about the story that goes with it.”

Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor, and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at

For full coverage of Stewardship Kaleidoscope 2021, click here.