Richard Radcliffe: Cutting your legacy budget is suicide

Legacies have the best return on investment of any form of fundraising, says our columnist

Richard Radcliffe
Richard Radcliffe

Performances are all over the place - some are exceeding expectations and others are downright disappointing. And Legacy Foresight predicted last week that legacy income would not grow for at least two years.

Figures for 2010 from the legacy consultancy I work for, Smee & Ford, show a fall in legacy giving of almost 8 per cent on the previous year. The number of legators fell by more than 2,500 and the number of legacies by 7,000. With an average legacy worth about £19,000, this could amount to drop of more than £130m.

The number of cash legacies is down. The number of residuary legacies is down. The number of specific legacies - personal effects - is up. But why? And is this the real picture?

I examined the situation with six hospices, which are among the fastest-growing beneficiaries from wills. Their legacy figures for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 fluctuate strongly in every case. For one, the figures were £780,000, £1.05m and £583,000; in a second, £1.335m, £1.4m and £2.38m; in a third it was £2m, £1.05m and £920,000.

Can anyone give a logical reason for the massive variances, which apply not only to hospices but to every cause? No. And no legacy trend can be judged in one year - or even a three-year period. Yet many finance directors, especially when planning their short-term budgets, make a judgement about this, because they have to.

What worries me are the calls I get - these are mainly panic calls from fundraisers who have been asked to forecast their legacy income for 2012/13 by their finance directors. What should I do, they say? Answer: Not a clue. The danger is in assuming anything.

But the outcome is usually to cut the legacy marketing budget, which to my mind is suicide. The other budget nightmare is that a figure for legacy income is frequently put in just to make the figures balance. I heard of this three times last month.

Trustees are often nervous about investing in legacies because of the lack of return on investment in the short term - during their trusteeship, in other words. But legacies have the best return on investment of any form of fundraising. If only more trustees had approved legacy marketing expenditure in past years, more charities would be asset-richer now and not panicking in this downturn.

So the sector needs to educate its leaders about legacy performance - about its minimal risk and its massive but variable return.

Many trustees suffer from that terrible disease, short-termitis. No company would produce a strategic plan that considers only the next year's products or services. A well-balanced portfolio that plans for future long term security is needed.

Richard Radcliffe is a consultant with Smee & Ford, which advises charities on legacy income. He writes in a personal capacity.

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