Symbolic Immortality Through Bequest Gifts: Be the Hero of Your Life Story!

In discussing planned gifts with an executive director client the other day, she insisted she couldn’t write something “positive” for her members and donors about charitable bequests.  She “hated bringing the topic up because it reminds her and everybody of death” and she didn’t want to appear ghoulish or greedy.

As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth, and there’s some compelling research to suggest just the opposite – bequests are actually all about life!  Russell James and Michael O’Boyle (2012) published a fascinating article demonstrating that, through their bequest gifts, donors can write the final chapter of their life story and achieve symbolic immortality.  What’s that?  Read on . . .

Your Brain on Bequests

James and O’Boyle asked 84 participants a series of questions related to planned giving – specifically, charitable bequests – while positioned in a MRI chamber, allowing them to observe which part(s) of the brain were engaged – literally illuminated with activity – in response to the questions.

Brain 1While in the scanner, participants could observe a computer screen on which a variety of charitable giving questions were presented.  The questions were identical, with the only difference being whether they were giving money, volunteering their time, or leaving a bequest gift to any one of 28 charitable organizations presented in a list. For example, “If you were to draft a will within the next three months, what is the likelihood that you’ll leave a bequest gift to a particular organization among these twenty eight?” and “What is the likelihood that you’ll give a cash gift to a particular organization among these twenty eight?” and “What is the likelihood that you’ll volunteer a portion of your time to a particular organization among these twenty eight?”

The central question of the research was: “What area(s) of the brain are engaged when individuals think about the probability of giving a donation, volunteering, or leaving a bequest gift to a charitable organization?”

James and O’Boyle surmised that different areas of the brain would respond to each of the three means of philanthropic giving.  Making cash donations and volunteering are activities that people do regularly, relative to bequest giving.  Consequently, they wanted to know how the brain specifically and uniquely reacts to the idea of leaving a bequest gift.

What they found was that two distinct areas of the brain were more active in responding to bequest decisions than for cash donations and/or volunteering decisions – these two areas are called the precuneus and the lingual gyrus.   The precuneus is the part of the brain that becomes engaged when people take an outside perspective of oneself; it’s sometimes referred to as the “mind’s eye” or self- image.  The lingual gyrus is a visualization area – how we visualize our life story.  When you’re dreaming, this part of your brain becomes active.  Damage to the lingual gyrus may inhibit one’s ability to dream.

Brain2That’s an interesting finding, but here’s the really interesting part.  In a study by Viard et al (2007), adults in their late 60s and 70s were shown photographs of themselves at different ages across their lives.   When the participants saw the photographs and remembered that time in their lives and what they were doing, both the precuneus and lingual gyrus simultaneously “lit up”.  The idea is that these two areas are involved in a phenomenon called visualized autobiography.

It’s all about Life . . . Life Story, That is. 

Here’s the idea, then . . . when people are thinking about the idea of making a bequest gift, they are actually thinking ‘How does this fit in with my life story’?  One way to look at it is that they’re trying to write the last chapter of their autobiography, and are asking themselves about whether this cause or organization fits in with that life story.

This is a vastly different approach from when we solicit a current major gift, where questions might relate to the more immediate environment, such as “What is the next big campaign?” or “How financially sound is the organization?”

How do financial planners usually approach a bequest gift?  From the perspective of Federal tax exemptions.  Certainly, tax benefits are a part of the decision-making process; but instead of leading with tax benefits, tries opening the conversation by simply asking how the individual is connected to the organization or cause, and what it’s meant to their life story and/or their loved ones, and then . . . just listen.

Image 3It’s about their life story and about how the organization fits in with that life story.  Get it?  This is a story about life, not death.  If you’re still not convinced, you will be shortly.  Keep reading.

Another interesting facet of this research that it relates to psychological principles established in the 1960’s related to how people come to terms with their own mortality.  One way, of course, is to avoid thinking about it altogether.  Another way is to seek symbolic immortality, where something about me persists beyond my living years, whether it’s my name, values, or my family.  We tend to focus on symbolic immortality when we’re reminded of our own mortality, and in its elemental form is really just a variation of autobiographical heroism, where we want to see ourselves as being significant and our lives as impactful and meaningful.  This psychological theory fits in very well with what James and O’Boyle observed in the MRI scanner – people are engaging in autobiographical thinking when they’re making decisions about leaving bequest gifts.

Consider Permanent Funds as a Means of Attracting Bequests

If somebody is pursuing symbolic immortality, consciously or subconsciously, as part of their estate planning process, they will likely be more attracted to organizations that have long-term strategies and investments, such as endowments, scholarships, finding cures for diseases, etc.  Conversely, organizations that do not or cannot focus on raising funds for a permanent program or cause but are instead focused on actions that need to be done immediately, may be more attractive for cash donations, and less so for estate gifts.  Why?  Because when we’re pursuing symbolic immortality, we don’t want all of our money going toward an immediate campaign with an endpoint shortly after our passing.  We want our gift to last a long time – maybe something that our grandkids can visit or read about and say, “Hey, my grandfather helped to make this happen.”

If your small nonprofit organization falls into that category, don’t worry.  It is a challenge to raise bequest dollars relative to current revenue, particularly if you’re already concerned about the financial sustainability of the organization.  Nevertheless, there are some ways to overcome this challenge.  For example, you can establish an endowment managed by a large bank or corporate trust to give the fund credibility and a sense of permanence, even beyond the life of the organization.  You can make the fund more attractive by designating that it be exclusively for bequest gifts, as a means of honoring those special donors.  In this way, you don’t have to cannibalize your current revenue to fund permanent opportunities that are more psychologically attractive to charitable bequest decision-making.

Link Storytelling and Remembrance to Symbolic Immortality

Remind your donor base of bequest opportunities by sharing stories and examples of how bequest gifts are being used to advance your organization’s mission.  Tell them a story about a person who supported your cause and, ideally, if you have an example of someone who has left a bequest, talk about how that person is still having a lasting and meaningful impact today, even though they passed away some time ago.  When your current donors see that deceased donors are still being remembered and talked about, and that they’re continuing to make a difference in the causes they cared about– that’s going to resonate with their desire to achieve symbolic immortality.  That’s different than what we usually see, which is typically about a current donor who has made a plan to leave a bequest.  That’s fine, and you shouldn’t stop thanking and recognizing current donors, but it’s not nearly as impactful as demonstrating that your organization recognizes bequests that are still having a meaningful impact.

Image 4Recognizing Bequests

Make it obvious to a prospective donor that putting your organization into their estate plan fits in with their autobiography and life story.  We can remind them of that by recognizing their longevity in giving; for example, your long-term donors that are approaching 5-, 10-, 20-, or more years of giving to your organization, including lifetime gifts.  Their individual gifts don’t have to be ‘large’ – but collectively, their longevity has had a meaningful impact to your organization.  That also has a nice side benefit of retaining that current revenue stream through recognition.  Just remind your donors of how long you’ve been together – and that you’re already a part of their life story.  That makes it much easier for them when they’re deciding which beneficiaries to designate in their estate plan.

Don’t be afraid to talk about bequests and planned giving with your prospective donors . . . you’re not reminding them of their death.  You’re giving them the chance to live on through impactful giving!

Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


James, Russell N. and O’Boyle, Michael W. , Charitable Estate Planning as Visualized Autobiography: An fMRI Study of its Neural Correlates (February 6, 2012). Available     at SSRN:

Viard, A., Piolino, P., Desgranges, B., Chetelat, G., Lebreton, K., Landeau, B., Young, A., De La Sayette, V., & Eustache, F., (2007) Hippocampal activation for autobiographical    memories over the entire lifetime in healthy aged subjects: An FMRI Study. Cerebral Cortex 17(10): 2453-2467.


One comment

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