Legacy appeals featuring 'living donors' more likely to be successful, research finds

The finding is contained in research conducted with more than 2,500 people in the US

Legacy fundraising appeals that involve sharing stories about living people who have left bequests to charity are more likely to be successful than those that do not, according to new research.

The paper We the Living: The Effects of Living and Deceased Donor Stories on Charitable Bequest Giving Intentions by Claire Routley, a research fellow at Plymouth University and Russell James, a professor at Texas Tech University in the US, found that donors who read stories about other donors expressed a greater interest in leaving a gift in their will than those who did not.

The research, which consisted of an online survey completed by 2,518 US adults, found that those who had read stories about living – as opposed to deceased – legators expressed an even greater interest in leaving a legacy.

Participants were asked to read vignettes of donors' life stories and their subsequent charitable bequests taken from the US "Leave a Legacy" public awareness campaign.

They were then shown a list of 20 large national charities and asked to state the likelihood that they would give money to each organisation either in the next three months or as a gift in their will.

The participants all reported significantly greater interest in making a bequest gift than making a donation within the next three months.

Living donor stories – in which the donors were referred to the donor as living, rather than deceased, and the bequest as planned, rather than completed – were also consistently more effective than deceased donor stories at increasing interest in making a bequest gift. 

The paper says this might be because people like to follow the example of others who they perceive as similar to them and living bequest donors are more similar to potential donors "simply by virtue of being alive".

It says: "For the fundraiser, the most practical consequence of this study is that (a) sharing stories appears to increase bequest intentions and (b) concentrating on living donor stories appears more effective.

"However, in order to tell these stories and to tell multiple stories over time and across channels, fundraisers would need to introduce mechanisms for collecting, storing, and managing donor stories."

The paper notes that some charities already collect donor stories by including a facility within their direct marketing appeals for people to share their stories, rather than purely ticking a box to indicate their bequest intention.

"For others, where there is more one-to-one interaction, fundraisers could encourage colleagues to collect donor stories at their meetings or via the telephone," the paper says.

It also suggests that fundraisers could make a conscious effort to capture stories from people of different demographic backgrounds and perhaps with different motives for supporting their charity.

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