Building relationships with donors
Building relationships with donors

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Building relationships with donors

5 Legacy fundraising

Legacies are an extremely important source of income for many charities. In the UK they represent well over a quarter of the total income from individuals of the top 500 fundraising charities, with a particularly strong showing in healthcare and animal charities (Sargeant and Jay, 2004). Slightly fewer than half of adults in the UK have written wills, but more than one in ten of those who do, leave charitable bequests (Radcliffe, 2007). Figures like this suggest there is plenty of potential to boost legacy giving even further, and the opportunity to do so seems promising given demographic changes such as the ageing profile of the population in the West and an inevitable increase in the annual death rate as the ‘baby boomer’ generation passes on. But these changes are accompanied by changing social and cultural values, which may have unpredictable effects on attitudes to making charitable bequests. Thus fundraisers will still need to work hard to understand and cater for donor needs in planning their legacy promotion programmes.

There can be a certain amount of hesitancy about legacy promotion for a number of reasons. First of all, mention of their death can be seen as negative and potentially off-putting to donors. Secondly, the importance of beneficiaries and service users as a source of legacy income to certain sorts of charities may raise the spectre of ‘undue influence’. Thirdly, while an individual has a perfect right to make a bequest to a charity in his or her will, it may be that other potential beneficiaries from the will may not see it like that and dispute the outcome with potentially negative publicity results (whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation). The Institute of Fundraising's Codes of Practice include a code on legacy fundraising setting out best practice in what can be a sensitive area. Its adoption should allow any organisation to approach legacy promotion with confidence.

A variety of communication media are used to solicit legacies, and their mix is changing. The first practical handbook on legacy fundraising available in the UK emphasised the importance of targeting intermediaries such as financial advisors and solicitors in the hope of being recommended as a suitable recipient for a legacy should their clients express a wish to leave something to a good cause when making a will (Mellor, 1983). This may have some value in terms of information, but has the disadvantage of being indirect and uncertain of return.

Current thinking focuses on the donor rather than the intermediary. The legacy is the ‘final gift’ that a committed supporter will wish to make to the cause which has inspired them through their lives. Hence its position at the apex of the donor development pyramid, and an emphasis on strengthening relationships with existing supporters in the hope of moving them towards this terminal act of support. Direct mail campaigns have thus been extremely important in putting the case to known donors. More recently there has been a growth in telephone and face-to-face solicitation by trained representatives, which has the advantage of being able to deal with the kinds of questions and potential concerns of prospective legators. As with any major gift solicitation, care has to be taken about who does the asking and in what circumstances, and the costs in terms of time and resources need to be acknowledged.

Many charities also target ‘cold’ audiences through direct response advertising, usually in the press. The justification for this is that legacy promotion cannot risk being too narrow. Some charities receive legacies from people who may not have been regular supporters during their lifetime, but recognise the charity as representative of a more general cause they want to support. This may explain why Cancer Research UK gets about half its voluntary income from legacies (Radcliffe, 2007), but this kind of positioning may only be available to certain large charities. Another form of approaching the general audience is to mount joint promotions with solicitors in order to offer will-making services free or at reduced cost. This method of promotion recognises that for many people what deters them from making a will (and therefore joining the number of potential charity legators) is their perception of its complexity and cost. Another example of collaboration in legacy promotion is the UK's Remember a Charity campaign, a consortium of over 140 charities working together to increase awareness of the benefits of giving in this way.

Legacy promotion to individuals usually aims to encourage them to make a will or, in the case of those who already have a will, to remember the charity the next time they change it. Any form of encouragement by a charity to make a will should always emphasise the absolute necessity for the legator to obtain independent expert advice – although such encouragement usually contains at least some information aimed at demystifying the jargon surrounding legacies. For example, the difference between a pecuniary bequest and a residuary bequest is an important one to get across. The former fixes a monetary sum as a legacy (e.g. £5000) and is thus vulnerable to the effects of inflation if the will is not updated regularly. The latter is when the donor leaves the remainder (or a percentage of it) of their estate to charity once other gifts have been made and debts cleared. Residuary legacies are, on average, ten times larger than pecuniary ones, suggesting that charities should encourage them if possible (Institute of Fundraising, 2006, p. 38). An immediate, but non-binding, commitment can be obtained by asking the individual to make an explicit pledge of support to the charity (in the expectation that they will formalise the pledge in their will when the next opportunity arises). This helps charities to budget future legacy income, to stay in touch with their potential legators, and to offer donor recognition in the shape of gifts (e.g. pens, prints or lapel pins) which help ‘normalise’ the idea of giving in this way.

A challenge for any fundraiser keen to develop a strategy for legacy promotion is the relative lack of research in the area. Sargeant and Hilton (2005) investigated the motives for making a legacy gift and the differences, if any, between legators and the general supporter base. They found that in general, people who left legacies to charity tended to demonstrate a greater concern than non-legators for how well the charity performed. The advice is that when communicating about legacy giving, charities should emphasise how effective they are at carrying out their mission. As to whom to communicate, the study concluded that legacy leavers tended to be in their mid-to late sixties when making their final wills, and included a significant number of service users. This suggests that, guided by appropriate norms of sensitivity and ethics, concentrating communications on older supporters and people with strong connections to the charity through its actual work may be the most effective way to grow resources in this area.

Activity 6

Which aspects of legacy fundraising might your organisation find most challenging, and how might you address these in a legacy promotion strategy?


Answers to this question will, of course, vary according to individual situations. However, as with big-gift fundraising, commitment from the organisation is essential to success. The hesitancy about legacy fundraising which some people feel can be addressed by working to make it an accepted ‘normal’ form of giving. This might involve losing no opportunity to promote it to existing supporters at events, in newsletters, at meetings, etc. An explicit code of practice such as that from the Institute of Fundraising can also inspire confidence. Not only the right donor profile, but also good database systems are important in order to nurture committed donors towards legacies, and (just as with any kind of major gift fundraising) if face-to-face solicitation is an option it needs to be adequately resourced. A further aspect of legacy fundraising which some organisations may find challenging is the potential it offers for collaborative strategies – either working with other fundraising organisations or with relevant service providers such as solicitors. While leading to many potential benefits, collaboration imposes different time-scales and decision processes on participants from the ones they may be used to.


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