At a recent conference in the US, I did a short presentation on some figures that I had used many times but had never really thought about in detail. I was in Baltimore speaking to perhaps a thousand fundraisers and, naturally, I wanted to impress. I didn't need to try very hard: when I did some simple maths, I realised that the figures were truly astounding. Yet our sector has so far failed to acknowledge their importance, obsessed as we are with the new and shiny.
New research that will refine the figures further will be coming out later this year, and every fundraiser should be waiting for it on tenterhooks. The original figures came from a simple piece of research carried out in 2013 by Remember A Charity in partnership with the Cabinet Office and the Charities Aid Foundation. During interviews with clients making their wills, will-writers were asked to prompt them with one of two test questions.
The simple ask went like this: "Would you like to leave any money to a charity in your will?" The more complex ask was interesting: "Many of our clients like to leave money to a charity in their wills; are there causes you are passionate about?" And there was a control group where no prompt about charities was made.
The results were astonishing. The simple ask more than doubled the number of people who included a charity in their wills, from an unprompted 4.9 per cent to 10.4 per cent. The more complex ask, which in effect normalises the inclusion of a charity in a will, trebled the response rate from 4.9 per cent to 15.4 per cent.
The will-writers also recorded the values of the bequests. Both the control group (unprompted) and the simple-ask group committed themselves to bequests of similar value – just over £3,000. The value of gifts left by the complex-ask group, however, was more than double, at £6,661.
So it appears that asking clients whether they'd like to leave bequests – and stating clearly that other people do this - increases the value of the gifts by a factor of six. What, then, does this mean for the UK charity sector?
Legacies currently bring in £2.2bn out of total charity voluntary income of about £16.5bn. Apply a factor of six and legacies would bring in £13.2bn out of a total of £27.5bn. That's a 67 per cent increase in the charity sector's total revenue – a destiny-changing factor.
The clever people at Remember A Charity are currently extending the research to refine the ask further. They are testing "nudge phrases" that resolve people's concerns about leaving legacies to charity, such as "I won't have much money", "my money will go to my friends and family" and so on. So it's likely that a phrase will be found that will prompt people even more effectively.
This research will be published in the autumn. We fundraisers must grasp the outcome as we have never done before. This is surely the stuff of miracles.
Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher