The economy is in a tailspin, house prices have dropped and older people are having to budget ever higher amounts for their future care. It all adds up to a grim picture for legacy fundraisers.
Richard Radcliffe, a legacies consultant, believes that the current financial climate has made legacies "totally unpredictable". He says: "The fluctuations have become huge and the question facing charity chief executives is how to forecast their income accurately."
Radcliffe says elderly people are wary of making long-term commitments to charities because of the downturn and are now writing 'letters of wishes' - which can be changed daily free of charge - rather than making wills.
Despite the challenging climate, some charities have managed to buck the trend.
For example, Breakthrough Breast Cancer has doubled its legacy income in the past financial year to more than £500,000 through employing new techniques to reach out to potential supports.
Gary Kelly, the charity's gifts in wills manager, says the charity raised legacy income by telephoning existing supporters and through its membership of the National Free Wills Network. Breakthrough has received about 500 legacies every year since 2005 from the wills scheme, which requires the charity to pay discounted solicitors' fees for writing the will in return for the legacy.
"Telemarketing is new for us, but it's a way to build relationships with supporters and tell them how they can support us," says Kelly. "We are only just starting to get income from the free wills scheme because the nature of it is that it takes time to see any benefit."
Kelly says the key to building legacy income is providing a personal and professional service. "I would advise charities not to be too despondent because things will bounce back," he adds.
Sharon Evans, director of fundraising at the animal welfare charity Wood Green, points out that legacy fundraising has always been unpredictable. She recalls one Christmas when the charity received a cheque for £1m from a woman who had only ever donated £10 to the charity before.
Wood Green's legacy strategy is to invest time in building relationships with supporters by taking steps such as inviting them to view the charity's work in person. "We then suggest the possibility of helping us when they are no longer with us," says Evans.
She says that many animal welfare charities have become over-reliant on legacy donations, but Wood Green has reduced its dependence on them from 80 per cent to 51 per cent of its annual income in the past decade. This has had an insulating effect during the current legacy crisis, but Evans still says the outlook is bleak.
"We think this volatility will continue for a decade," says Evans. "Pensioners are being told they will need loans for their care and children today will have to work longer, so what money will people have left to give to charities?"
Radcliffe says legacy numbers will rise in line with the annual death rate, currently at an all-time low of 410,000 a year but predicted to rise to a peak of more than 600,000 in 30 years. "We will see a rise in the number of legacies but a fall in their value, from an average of £19,000 now to about £1,000," he says.
But he points out that people amend their wills about five times in their lives on average, so there are always opportunities for charities to secure bequests.
Radcliffe says: "You have to be on their minds, but obviously you can't ring up supporters and ask: 'How's your health?' So your legacy marketing has to be integrated and sustained."
Case study: Guide Dogs
Two out of three guide dogs are funded by gifts in wills, so encouraging new legacy donations and keeping the cause at the forefront of people's minds is crucial.
Last summer, the charity Guide Dogs ran a campaign to raise awareness of its work and to generate legacies. The campaign involved working with Yours and Mature Times magazines, which are read by Guide Dogs' target audience of people over 50. Advertorial and editorial pieces ran over five weeks and included articles about guide dog breeding and training. The articles included a call to action and ended with a full-page advert that directed people to the Guide Dogs Gifts in Wills microsite.
The charity also formed a partnership with the commercial radio station Magic, which included dog trainers and fundraisers going on the station's regional breakfast shows in six different areas.
The charity chose to work with the station because of its reach in the north west and Yorkshire, which are areas where it has strong local links, including its dog-training centre in Manchester.
As a result of the campaign, 12,000 people expressed an interest in leaving the charity legacies last year - its highest-ever figure. Jayne George, director of fundraising and income generation at Guide Dogs, says: "This is the first integrated legacy marketing campaign we've ever done and we're really happy with how it went. It was fantastic to use different media and allow those who use our services to share with others the effect it has had on their lives."- See the top 10 funding application errors
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