FreeWill Uses Online Estate Planning to Fund CharityBy Jasmine Sun
In recent years, organizations have optimized the art of getting ordinary people to give small amounts to charity. But, what if those thirty-dollar donations were thirty-thousand dollars instead?
FreeWill is an online service that provides warm, free, and intuitive estate planning – all with the goal of raising one trillion dollars for nonprofit organizations. By asking users to donate a portion of their estate while crafting their no-cost will, FreeWill has already raised $82 million for over 40 nonprofit partners.
FreeWill was founded by Patrick Schmitt (Stanford GSB ’18) and Jenny Xia (Harvard ’12, Stanford GSB ’18) in January 2017. By the time Patrick started pursuing his MBA degree, he had already spent several years developing new ways to scale social good as Head of Innovation at Change.org and Director of Email Campaigns for President Obama. These experiences gave him what he calls “insight into the collective power of people,” and he saw the immense potential in the social startup scene. When he met Xia, a McKinsey veteran who started Bain Capital’s first impact investment fund, the two connected over their mutual desire to create impact, and discovered a huge untapped opportunity for giving.
Scaling Charitable Giving
What was the opportunity everyone was ignoring? Planned giving. In particular, the ability to give to charity posthumously.
An estimated $35 trillion USD will be inherited in the United States in the next 20 years, and the typical bequest for a middle-class family is $50,000, according to Schmitt. This pool of giving is “the largest wealth transfer in human history, and probably also the single greatest opportunity for philanthropy in the history of the world,” says Schmitt.
Nonprofit organizations, however, are often hesitant to invest in their strategy for planned giving. In an article he published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Schmitt points out that planned giving is typically bundled into a charity’s “Major Gifts” department – a function that focuses overwhelmingly on wealthy donors, neglecting average income earners who also have the desire and capacity to donate.
FreeWill changes this. Nonprofits pay a subscription fee, and FreeWill prompts users to donate to these partner organizations when crafting their wills. This simple strategy has catalyzed huge results: people give 600% more when they use FreeWill’s tools compared to ordinary estate planning, totaling $87 million USD committed to charity so far — a number that’s only going up. FreeWill is also continually expanding their list of over nonprofit partners, including Amnesty International, Teach for America, and the American Red Cross.
Listening to the User
FreeWill isn’t the only online service that helps people write wills. LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, and LawDepot offer similar estate planning tools at low-to-no cost. But none of these websites help donate money. Beyond FreeWill’s charitable mission, Schmitt and Xia attracted users by prioritizing user feedback.
After all, most people aren’t exactly excited to think about planning their estates. It’s a process commonly perceived as scary, complicated, and full of confusing legal mumbo-jumbo. Schmitt described writing a will as “a deeply emotional and purpose-driven activity in a way that a lot of other document-creation tasks are not.” So when helping people write something this personal, cycles of iteration and feedback were crucial to designing a positive user experience.
“We talked to nonprofit organizations and lawyers and Baby Boomers, to really get to what the core of the problems were. And then we started building and testing and experimenting,” said Schmitt.
Which icons did people prefer? What style of language felt the warmest? Were any steps in crafting a will difficult to understand? By asking users to make these seemingly insignificant decisions, Schmitt and Xia developed a service that feels welcoming and accessible on an emotional level – a service people would actually use.
The Future of Philanthropy
FreeWill is working on making its tool even more successful and efficient for its nonprofit partners. Schmitt and Xia plan to pursue FreeWill full-time after graduating from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and move to New York to gain exposure to more charities and potential partnerships.
Schmitt doesn’t believe the nonprofit sector is resistant to change, a common complaint echoing in the social entrepreneurship space. Nonprofit leaders, Schmitt contends, are more tech-savvy than ever, and seek digital tools that will help them maximize their impact. These leaders are “resistant to outsiders coming in and telling them what to do. So if you’re a thoughtful partner – and not an aggressive Silicon Valley jerk – people see that, and they know it, and they’re receptive,” said Schmitt.
Holistically, FreeWill has fostered strong relationships with its partners by showing an authentic desire to meet charities’ needs, and offer them tools to drive sizable amounts of giving. Schmitt views FreeWill’s social mission as inextricable from its growth.
“It doesn’t feel like a tradeoff. The business would be less successful if we drift away from our values. And the impact would be less successful if we didn’t have a strong and stable business,” said Schmitt.
With three full-time employees and growing, FreeWill is clearly angling to escalate its impact in the joint worlds of estate planning and philanthropy. For more information, visit FreeWill’s website here.