Mark Phillips: You will reap what you sow

Just over a year since the start of the fundraising crisis, the big change I’m seeing is in the briefs we receive from charities. Not a week goes by without a request for a mid-value or legacy programme. After years of receiving briefs focused on the generation of a never-ending stream of new donors, it’s very refreshing. It finally appears that fundraisers are interested in looking at where the real money actually is. 

But, sadly, for many charities a change in approach isn’t going to be easy. 

The dominant strategy of the last decade of recruiting low-value regular givers has left a rather pernicious legacy. 

The fact is that many charities have "donor" files that have some unhelpful characteristics: the donors are unengaged, younger and unlikely to be able to give a gift of £1,000 – even if they wanted to. 

Which means that the very profitable areas of mid-value and legacies are unlikely to be routes that will solve their fundraising problems in the short or medium term.

To work effectively, mid-value campaigns needs fully engaged donors with spare cash. They don’t have to be super wealthy, but potential mid-value supporters need more than three asks on a telephone call if they are to write a cheque for hundreds or thousands of pounds. 

And, perhaps more importantly, legacy campaigns need old donors – a point that many fundraisers still fail to grasp. I remember a few years ago being questioned in a presentation to a very large charity about why we had a focus on recruiting older donors. I mentioned the importance of legacy income to our financial models when the senior staff member present informed me that people wrote wills when they are 38.

The rest of the presentation would have been completely void if I had demurely agreed so I highlighted two painful truths – more than 80 per cent of successful charity bequests were written into wills by people older than 75 and bequests from people as young as 38 were likely to be conditional and unlikely to be in the amended will when the donor actually died 50 years hence. 

They are the facts. As painful as it may be to hear, it’s only older people who really leave significant gifts to charity in their wills. Recent figures released by Smee and Ford show that just 10 per cent of all charitable bequests were left by baby boomers. The vast majority were from the older cohorts.

The other point that many people fail to realise is that good bequest programmes aimed at this older group can return a profit within two or three years. Take a look at all charitable wills from 2015 and you’ll see that 16 per cent came from wills that were written or amended in the previous year. 

For some charities this figure can be as high as 20 per cent. Though for many others, it is much lower.

So if you are now looking at mid-value and legacies, fantastic. Your future will be bright. But before you send out a mid-value or legacy brief to an agency, have a good look at your donors and see if you have the prospects among them necessary for a successful campaign. Your time may well be better spent thinking about how you can engage them before you even start thinking of asking them for large or end-of-life gifts. 

And, of course, maybe you should also think about donor recruitment too. If your strategy is changing to focus on mid-value and legacies – start recruiting donors who fit that profile now.

Mark Phillips is the founder and managing director of the fundraising agency Bluefrog

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