Richard Radcliffe: We should think more about donors - and trust them

Fundraisers should consider the changing pressures on people making wills and take the long-term view, according to the consultant and legacy expert

Richard Radcliffe
Richard Radcliffe

Stop fundraising for a moment and think about donors. I meet them every week and I wonder whether fundraisers realise what the state of the donor market really is. Perhaps we think less about our impact on donors than our impact on beneficiaries.

This article does not sound a death knell for direct marketing, nor is it an attack on fundraisers. But I hope it sets off a loud alarm bell and gets you to stop and listen to those who fund your work.

For more than 20 years, I have been listening to donors, volunteers and service users – probably thousands of people. The donor journey is what fascinates me. What about attrition rates in direct marketing and doorstep fundraising, for instance? Can you really measure outcomes without measuring the number of legacies that people remove from their wills because of aggressive or over-frequent asks? What is the legacy attrition rate from over-enthusiastic direct marketing?

There were 50,000 complaints this year, according to the Fundraising Standards Board – a 50 per cent rise on last year. Yet how many unhappy donors bother to complain? In my view, fewer than 2 per cent. Meanwhile, the latest Charity Commission survey shows that two-thirds of the public are uncomfortable with charity fundraising methods.

The number of asks has gone up from 13.2 billion to 20 billion in the past year, according to the FRSB. This means that the average person is receiving more than 450 a year. Perhaps the average donor is getting more than 1,000. Typical donors – the type that I've listened to for decades – say that their giving patterns are changing: they have reduced the number of charities that they support by at least half.

What drives trust and confidence? According to Charity Commission research, just under half of people say it is "ensuring a reasonable amount of donations make it to the end cause", whereas a quarter say "making a positive difference to the cause they work for". I had expected the reverse, but most donors are prudent – older donors, in particular, care about every penny, and they expect their charities to do the same.

Trust is highest in local charities and lowest in international ones. Surely this is linked to knowing where and how funds have been used: the further away the beneficiaries, the less certain the prudent use of funds. Donors can touch local charities and live among their beneficiaries.

My specialism is legacy giving. A legacy is an investment, not a donation, so trust is based on how many pence in the pound go to a charity's cause – which is what donors are interested in.

At the Institute of Fundraising's national convention this year, the legacy notification service Smee & Ford said that 69 per cent of legacy pledgers fulfilled their pledges. Great – but is this the same for all charities? No, it is not: I have known it to be as low as 2 per cent and as high as 82 per cent. The figure seems to depend on donor satisfaction and engagement. The former is led by accountability and transparency; the latter by personal experience.

In my focus groups and lifestyle reports, 95 per cent of people who have put a charity in their will never actually tell the charity they have done so. More than 60 per cent of retired people are doing a legacy hokey-cokey – legacies are in, out and shaken all about because of:

- Aggressive legacy marketing techniques.

- Financial uncertainty (even though pensioners are better off than 20 years ago).

- Future care costs (likely to rise tenfold in the next 30 years).

- Split or blended families in each generation, causing massive inheritance issues.

- The number of co-habiting couples having doubled to more than three million in the past 15 years, according to the Office for National Statistics: again causing massive inheritance issues.

- Divorce among older people: those of men aged over 65 have risen by 73 per cent since 1991.

- The changing demographic of grandparents: of 14 million in the UK, 1.5 million are under 50.

- More grandparents than ever paying for their grandchildren's education.

Now put yourself into the mind of a typical donor and ask yourself these questions: how much will my income be this year? How much can I safely spend? How much should I save for the future? How much can I give to charity? Which is the best way to support charities?

Is the answer to the last question a direct debit? No, because I do not have a clue about how much I will need. Or is it to give 1 per cent (or more) to charity in my will because then at least everyone will have something? Yes.

From the fundraiser's point of view, perhaps the response to all of this is: "I don't care about investing in legacies because I'll have moved on from this charity and I have to meet my target this year." However, in the focus groups that I have worked with over the past five years, between 35 and 52 per cent of charity stakeholders have put charities in their wills.

The debate is whether legacies will remain in the wills. So it's time we focused on donors and trusted their actions in respect of their wills, just as they trust their charities. It's time we were more focused on the donor environment; we should say "we understand the impact of your changing lifestyle – put us in your will if you can, but we do not expect you to tell us your intentions or legacy values". And it's time to take the long-term view rather than go for the quick win.

Legacies are a form of voluntary income. Voluntary means "done, given or acting of one's own free will". That says it all. Do not ask for legacies – give prospects the freedom to choose to make legacies and have an impact on your future. Trust them as much as they trust you.

Richard Radcliffe is a consultant and legacy expert

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