David Burrows: When it comes to legacies, are you preaching to the converted?

Charities should concentrate on those who have never thought about leaving a donation in their will, says the head of fundraising at TDA

David Burrows, head of fundraising, TDA
David Burrows, head of fundraising, TDA

Many legacy fundraisers judge their success on the number of legacy pledges they receive. However, a minority of sceptics doubt the value of such pledges. Recently, the NSPCC has changed tack and made a point of not pressuring supporters to declare their legacy intentions. What are we to make of this?

I think pledges are valuable - partly because I have yet to see proof that the majority of pledgers are time-wasting liars. But I do fear that focusing too much on the metric of pledging can distract us from the more important job of legacy persuasion and conversion. I'd like to explain what I mean with an analogy to religious conversion - apologies to both atheists and believers.

You are a vicar who has just been appointed to a parish where only three men and a dog go to church on Sunday. The bishop tells you to convert 100 new believers by the end of the year. You mail the parish, asking people to send back a pledge form declaring "I am a Christian". Lo and behold, 100 people return the form with the box ticked. So you go to the bishop and say "Look, I have converted 100 people." What will the bishop say?

The bishop will say that you haven't converted anyone. Revealing hidden intentions might be valuable for many reasons, but it doesn't actually mean you have achieved a result that wasn't going to happen anyway.

So what would the bishop think of legacy pledge forms? Do they simply reveal what people have already done or were already thinking of doing, or are they evidence that a 'conversion' has taken place? If it is the former, let's be honest and admit what we are doing is legacy identification, not legacy fundraising.

Legacy identification is valuable, but I'm sure that, like me, you really want to be a legacy evangelist and convert new people to the cause. If so, the analogy of religious conversion is worth stretching a little further, because most churches don't just preach to the converted or present non-believers with pledge forms and hope for the best. They run programmes such as the Alpha Course to actively engage people who are interested but haven't yet made up their minds.

What is your charity doing to identify and persuade the enquirers, the waverers, the might-be-interesteds, the not-sure-it's-for-me legacy prospects? What are you doing to understand their doubts and concerns, and what are you saying to overcome them? Simply banging on about what a great charity you are and then giving people a pledge form is not enough.

So maybe your legacy fundraising should be more like an invitation to join the Alpha Course - though perhaps you should call it the Omega course, given the fact that with legacies we are generally dealing with the end, not the beginning.


More than a third of charity supporters have already included charities in their wills, according research carried out earlier this year by charitable legacy agency Smee & Ford.

Out of 1,716 charity supporters surveyed by the charitable legacy agency, 79 per cent had written their wills, and 35 per cent of those had made bequests to charities.

The study also revealed that 43 per cent of supporters of international organisations had made charitable legacies, compared with 30 per cent of donors to medical research charities and 13 per cent of health charity supporters.

Research released in November by digital marketing agency TDA Marketing and a consortium of five UK charities showed that legacy fundraisers and direct marketers needed to adopt new communications techniques to engage with potential legacy donors.

Remember a Charity, the UK legacy consortium, will launch a legacies campaign in a series of TV adverts that will run from spring 2009. The consortium's last campaign, in 2003, was fronted by former newsreader Michael Buerk.

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