Analysis: 'Begging letters' from charities provoke indignation

How one man's complaint about bids for a share of a legacy has prompted some charities to review their policies about contacting executors

Marcus Watkins received 58 letters asking for legacy donations
Marcus Watkins received 58 letters asking for legacy donations

- This story was corrected on 2 September - see final paragraph

Legacy fundraising came under the spotlight last week after a man from Stevenage said 57 charities and one campaign group had written to him asking for a legacy donation within three months of his appointment as executor of his late mother-in-law's will.

Marcus Watkins, who works as head of finance and administration for the charity the Christian Medical Fellowship, said the letters caused him offence because the charities seemed to have misunderstood his mother-in-law's wishes.

The will contained a list of charities between which £20,000 should be shared, but gave him as executor "ultimate discretion". Watkins said he felt he was being asked by the charities to override his mother-in-law's list.

In this case, the problem seems to have arisen largely because charities failed to scrutinise the will before they wrote the letters. Many were unaware that there was a list of nominated charities and one, the children's charity Barnardo's, wrote to ask for a donation without realising that it had already received £2,000 in the will.

Several large charities, including Barnardo's, PDSA, Mencap and Mind, have apologised and pledged to tighten their procedures (see the breakdown of responses, below). A Barnardo's spokeswoman said that this was the first complaint it had received about an application for a discretionary legacy, and it had now changed its procedures.

Tighter checks could help prevent a repeat of Watkins' case. But his experience raises bigger questions: is it reasonable for so many letters to be sent to one grieving relative, and how many other executors receive a similar number of requests?

Many of the charities said they received Watkins' details from Smee and Ford, a company that notifies charities of wills that contain discretionary gifts - these fall into the public domain when an executor is appointed. Charities can then choose whether to write to the executor. So it is unlikely that Watkins is the only executor to have received a large number of requests.

"Any system that allows this number of charities to contact one person in a short time just isn't working," says Rob Cope, director of the charity legacy consortium Remember a Charity.

"It undermines the great work that the sector is doing to promote legacy donations." He says he will raise the issue at the consortium's next meeting, possibly making the suggestion that charities share information and avoid approaching people who have already been contacted by a large number of other groups.

But Roshana Gammampila, director of the Institute of Legacy Management and legacy income manager at Save the Children, says many executors are happy to receive this number of letters: "It could be that if many charities contact one individual, that person will feel they have been given the necessary information to make the right choice."

Gammampila says it is not realistic to expect charities to avoid contacting executors that might have already received a lot of requests.

"The very nature of cases where the executor has discretion is competitive - as in all fundraising," she says. "Charities have a duty to maximise their income and, provided they always approach executors in an appropriate and sensitive way, this is reasonable behaviour."

A spokeswoman for Smee and Ford was unable to say how many charities the firm had given Watkins' details to, and could not comment on whether it might change its procedures as a result of this case. She said it was reasonable to give the details out because Watkins had ultimate discretion over how the charitable legacy was distributed, and that the company had stressed to charities that they should be sensitive in their approach.


The Aftermath - How the organisations that sent letters responded to the complaint

Charities that are changing their procedures

Barnardo's, British Youth Opera, Henshaws, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Jumbulance Trust, Mencap, Mercy Ships, Mind, PDSA, Petsavers, Practical Action, World Horse Welfare

Charities that are reviewing their practices

British Kidney Patient Association, British Wireless for the Blind Fund, Care International UK, Gingerbread, New College Worcester, Pilgrims Hospices, World Cancer Research Fund

Charities that are reviewing how 'error' ocurred

Children's Liver Disease Foundation, Cry

Charity that is "reprimanding staff"

Magen David Adom UK

Charity that is contacting Smee and Ford

Build Africa

Charities that have apologised

Bowel and Cancer Research, Bowel Disease Research Foundation, Breakthrough Trust, Canine Partners, Children in Crisis, Cicra, Combat Stress, Homes in Zimbabwe, Lord Whisky Sanctuary Fund, Meningitis UK, MS Research and Relief Fund, Ohel Sarah, Psychiatry Research Trust, Restore - Burn and Wound Research, Seashell Trust, Tiggywinkles, Wood Green Animal Shelters

Charities that have not responded to the complaint

Actors' Benevolent Fund, Aftaid, Alzheimer's Research UK, Animal Defenders International*, Animal Health Trust, Aspinall Foundation, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Carers UK, Children with Cancer UK, Deafness Research UK, Donkey Sanctuary, Health Poverty Action, Martha Trust, Ovarian Cancer Action, React, Royal Wolverhampton School, SOS Children's Villages, WaveLength

*Animal Defenders International is not a registered charity

- The above list supplied by the complainant says that Children with Cancer UK was among charities that did not respond. The charity has in fact apologised and reviewed its processes. Apologies for the error.


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