How to lose $17 million without even trying

by guest blogger Christiana Stergiou, Fundraisingologist at Moceanic.
It’s incredibly difficult to be smart about opportunity cost.

There’s just something in our brains that pushes us toward bad decisions that cost us dearly.

When we overcome that innate human shortcoming — that’s when we make amazingly smart decisions that can transform situations around us.

What is opportunity cost when we’re talking about fundraising?

I’ve always loved the way the great Mal Warwick put it: “Opportunity cost is the money you would have raised if only you’d done things right.”

It’s money you never see, so you don’t have to record it as “lost.” You can ignore it.

But it’s lost money all the same.

Opportunity cost really piles up when it comes to bequest fundraising. Let me give you a quick calculation that can help you quantify the monetary difference between doing it right and not doing it at all.

It’s A x B x C = D.

  • A = The number of your donors who have given 2 or more gifts, and at least one of those gifts was made in the last 18 months.
  • B = Your successful pledge rate. This is the big variable, the number you can change by what you do or not do. It most likely is somewhere between 0.01% and 5%.
  • C = Your average bequest. For US charities, it’s around $35,000. If you don’t know your average, this is a good number to use.

Multiply those three numbers, and you’ll have D, the value of future bequests to your organization.

Let’s play it out with these assumptions. You can adjust these to your realities:

Here’s how it looks for an organization that has no bequest program or does almost nothing to cultivate bequests:

  • A = 10,000 donors who’ve given 2 or more gifts, and their last gift was within the last 18 months
  • B = 0.01% successful pledge rate (very low because you aren’t actively seeking bequests)
  • C = $35,000
  • D = $350,000 in future bequest income

OK. Not bad for doing nothing. And a lot of charities skate along like that, seeing that $350,000 as a kind of random windfall. They’re happy with it. They’d be a little less happy if they thought about the opportunity cost they’re paying for doing nothing!

Here’s what it looks like for an organization that has a not-terribly-effective bequest program. They’re consistently doing something to encourage bequests, just not the most they could:

  • A = 10,000 donors (that meet the criteria I’ve listed above)
  • B = 1% successful pledge rate
  • C = $35,000
  • D = $3.25 million in future bequest income

So the opportunity cost of doing nothing about bequests, as compared to doing something (though not a great job at it) is $2.9 million ($3.25 million minus the $350,000 you’d get for doing nothing). That’s nearly $3 million that will never go to your cause. It’s not lost in the sense that you had it and it disappeared, but it truly is lost because you could have had it.

Now let’s look at a well-run, effective, consistent bequest program:

  • A = 10,000 donors
  • B = 5% successful pledge rate (high, but completely achievable; some organizations do even better)
  • C = $35,000
  • D = $17.5 million in future bequest income

That’s a more than $17 million cost to doing nothing.

This is not “fake money.” It’s money that can come in the door if you do the right activities.

Or won’t come in if you don’t. CEOs get fired (or jailed) for losing that much!

But because it’s opportunity cost, there will be no penalty to anyone.

These numbers are illustrative only. Your level of success will depend on many factors including your background, experience, time allocation, budget, database, risk management as well as consistent effort devoted to the program.

So my question to you, smart fundraiser, is this: Are you interested in that completely achievable $17.5 million in revenue (or whatever you equivalent is)? Or are you okay with letting it float away like a bit of dust on a breezy day?

Oddly, most people let the revenue float away.

I don’t think that’s you.

That’s why you are serious about bequest fundraising.

Want more on putting the power of bequest fundraising to work for you? Check out Christiana Stergiou’s online course, Your Complete Roadmap to Raising Money with Bequests. This game-changing, super-practical course is now available for $100 off the usual price. Click here to find out more.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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