Stephen Pidgeon: Manners are the key to legacy giving

Charities need to understand the importance of saying thank you to donors, says our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

Recently there has been a veritable feast of discussion on the LinkedIn page of the excellent Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration, managed by the consultant Ken Burnett, which attempts to archive great fundraising thinking and creativity.

The heated debate centred around what should go into a thank-you letter: in particular, should it include another ask for a donation? A number of peacemakers tried to advocate "it depends ..." and "not always ..." : but the argument became intense and personal, culminating in a group of data-driven fundraisers - exclusively men, I'm sad to say - who took the line that if it makes more money, we should do it. They showed figures that seemed to prove it made more money and argued that, as fundraisers, we weren't doing our jobs if we didn't ask.

In the personal bit, they suggested that the success of their hard-nosed focus on income would ultimately bring the downfall of the wishy-washy approach advocated by Burnett's book Relationship Fundraising - which, they said, could never be proved to work.

Let me share a set of figures that blows that simplistic approach to direct marketing fundraising out of the water. It comes from a successful UK charity that recruits a new group of donors to its database every year (at a small cost). Of those recruited less than six years before the analysis, 44 had already died and left the charity gifts in their wills. The value of those gifts - more than £800,000 - would have paid for the recruitment costs many times over. Another group recruited less than five years before had yielded 36 legacies, another less than four years before yielded 18 legacies - and so on.

The charity treats its donors well and understands that, to an older generation - the one next in line to leave a legacy - a warm letter of thanks with a summary of how the donation is already changing lives, is essential. That generation was taught that saying "thank you" was good manners. Indeed, the fundraising consultant John Grain argues that 70 per cent of the people he researched had a better recall of the thank-you letter than the original appeal they gave to.

If legacy income was included in the analysis of lifetime value, the strident claims of the anti-Relationship Fundraising lobby would be silenced. But so too would the short-term thinking of those charity boards that refuse to invest in finding new donors because it doesn't make a quick profit, and still believe that legacy income will continue to come in with only the most casual of asks.

Both views are outdated: the latter especially so, because every school, university, museum and orchestra now asks supporters for a legacy. The days when charities alone could expect the bulk of UK legacies are gone - and we'll see a revolution in the next 20 years that will hit charities hard unless they think long-term.

Stephen Pidgeon is a trustee of the Institute of Fundraising, a consultant and teacher

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