Alex McDowell: Fear of charity legacies is still all too prevalent

The ban by a supermarket of posters advertising legacy giving shows that familiar misunderstandings linger in this area of fundraising

Alex McDowell
Alex McDowell

This week, Remember A Charity was given a timely reminder of a cultural barrier to making legacy giving a social norm.

A major supermarket refused to allow legacy adverts to be placed on poster sites outside its stores because "the campaign does not comply with our family-friendly environment policy".

The advert is nothing controversial: a fairly straightforward message asking the public to help find the answers to life’s biggest questions by leaving gifts in their wills, tying in with the launch of Remember A Charity Week, which runs from 10 to 16 September.

So why is it that the generic message of legacy giving or estate planning is perceived as non-family-friendly?

When I asked fellow fundraisers for their views, many expressed disappointment, others confusion.

The advert in question doesn’t mention death. Nor does it (or Remember A Charity) encourage disinheritance of families. Quite the opposite in fact.

After the confusion came righteous indignation and cries of hypocrisy: "Don’t supermarkets sell life insurance?" "And alcohol?" Apparently, they even sell lubricant in their family-friendly environments.

What’s more, families will surely benefit if we protect the environment, cure diseases, enhance cultural and educational opportunities and do all the other things charities do, in no small part as a result of gifts in wills.

But the supermarket is neither the problem nor the enemy here. And I don’t say that just because I’m not ready to boycott its pleasing range of continental cheeses.

It might be that it has a misguided policy. More likely, perhaps, a well-intentioned individual has misinterpreted a sensible policy. But let’s face it, the fear of causing offence simply by mentioning legacies extends well beyond the supermarket’s marketing department.

This fear can be found in solicitors’ offices. It can be found in charities. And let’s not pretend it doesn’t exist within fundraising and marketing departments, even in charities that are massively reliant on legacies to fund their work.

In our experience, this fear is fading. Perhaps that’s why this response felt so surprising. It might not have done 10 years ago.

As a sector, we have made great progress towards changing public and professional attitudes, including finding insight-led and timely ways to introduce the subject of legacy giving.

Record numbers of solicitors now routinely ensure their customers are given the option of donating through their wills. The wider legal sector, government and the commercial sector are all working with us to find the most effective ways to introduce and encourage legacy conversations with customers, employers or the wider public.

Over the long term, we know that both the number of estates including charity gifts and the number of people thinking about and acting on leaving gifts in their wills are increasing. Sixteen per cent of the public say they have done so, up from 11 per cent in 2011, and – in a recent consumer survey – more than two-thirds of people said they would be happy for their solicitors to include charities in their wills once they had provided for their families. Attitudes are changing and legacy giving is becoming more cemented within our culture.

However, the response from this supermarket shows that some familiar misunderstandings and fears linger on and work remains to be done. This makes it all the more important that we continue to work together, conveying the importance of legacies in addressing many of society’s biggest challenges, while also enabling people to support their families and friends.

And before we start throwing metaphorical stones, we might need to take a moment to check out the glazing in our own glass houses. Change almost always starts from within.

Alex McDowell is chair of Remember A Charity and head of public fundraising at the RNIB

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