Legacy gifts form the cornerstone of UK charities. Without them much of the vital work they undertake just wouldn’t be possible, and yet negative coverage of charity fundraising practices in the past 18 months has cast doubt over the integrity of charities and charity fundraisers.
Given that a legacy gift embodies so many personal values and wishes, it’s vital that charity legacy administrators build and maintain a bond of trust and respect with all those involved – the donor themselves, of course, before death, but also with family members and friends after death, and with those responsible for dealing with the estate as executor. Only in this way can we ensure that every charitable legacy gift has the opportunity to achieve its greatest potential.
So how do we go about creating, and keeping, this bond? Above all else, legacy administration should be personal. In my first few months as Chief Executive at the Institute of Legacy Management I’ve had several interesting conversations about how charities should communicate with the executors. It’s universally agreed that we should be communicating in a timely and sensitive manner, but how this actually manifests itself varies greatly from charity to charity.
There’s also a long-held belief that lay executors (family or friends - as opposed to professionals such as solicitors) should be treated with additional care and compassion. With the sensitivities involved I think this is only right but, to me, this appears to suggest a two-tiered approach. Given solicitors remain key influencers in the legacy giving process – with over 80% of wills still written by solicitors – how can we better encourage a climate of mutual respect between charity administrators and solicitors to ensure estates are administered in the best possible way?
As charities our marketing materials often talk about the fact that every gift is important, that ‘big or small, every legacy will make a difference.’ When someone has reflected on their life and made the decision to support an organisation with a gift in their will - most often the largest single donation they will ever make - we should be going out of our way to acknowledge that very personal gift, via those who are responsible for fulfilling those wishes and who will take pride in playing their own role in making that difference. Most often we get this right, but it worries me when I hear that some charities do not write at all when they receive legacy gifts. This may only be a limited occurrence but if it’s happening at all that’s worrying.
Although many charities go to great lengths to personalise the experience, there is more charities could be doing. We must ensure, no matter how large or small our organisation (acknowledging that they both bring very different challenges), no matter who we are in contact with, that personal communication is key. With legacy gifts worth over £2.2bn each year, charities must invest in the resource they need to be able to handle these gifts in the most appropriate way. Where it’s not already happening, databases should be scanned for existing relationships - were they a supporter and if they were when and why did they start supporting? Letters should be tailored and if possible relationships with the families and probate professionals built over the telephone.
Administration of a residuary estate takes, on average, 18 months. Where these actions aren’t being taken, lots of opportunities to build strong connections, to demonstrate that the money will be spent well and the memory of their loved one or client will be respected, honoured or celebrated as appropriate are being missed.
Legacy administration is so much more than ‘thanking and banking’, and it’s only by conducting ourselves in this way that we can be sure we’ve done all we might to maintain our organisation’s reputation, and establish important channels for future giving.