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How to keep a legacy pledge on track

Dr Claire Routley shares some key tips for keeping legacy supporters engaged and committed

With ten-year legacy retention rates standing at just 55%, effective stewardship should be a core focus for all legacy teams. Dr Claire Routley shares some key tips for keeping legacy supporters engaged and committed


Historically, legacy fundraisers used to rejoice in the knowledge that once someone put their charity in their will, they were unlikely to take them out again – snapshot surveys of donors suggested that, once added, charities were very rarely removed. Our illusions were shattered a couple of years ago when longitudinal research by legacy expert Professor Russell James found that the ten-year retention rate for legacies was actually only around 55%.


There are likely to be a number of reasons why people change their minds about legacy giving, and fundraisers are unlikely to be able to do very much about changes in personal circumstances, for example. However, we can ensure that our legacy donors receive the very best standards of stewardship and are reassured that their gifts are needed, valued and will be spent effectively.


Professor James’ results suggest that focusing on stewarding legacy supporters should be a strategic imperative for any charity which is serious about growing its legacy income. But, how best should we steward our supporters?


Reinforcing core motivations for legacy giving


When thinking about stewardship, it’s helpful to go back to the core motivations as to why someone leaves a legacy in the first place, and to consider how these can be reinforced. One of the most important is likely to be the need to gain a sense of symbolic immortality – to know that even though they will no longer be physically here, some element of them will continue on into the future through the people, causes and values they care about.


According to psychologists Pyszczynski and colleagues, who have researched symbolic immortality extensively:


“Being a person of value in a world of meaning provides the hope of literal immortality to those people whose world view promises some form of afterlife and provides the hope of symbolic immortality to even those whose world view eschews an afterlife.”


In other words, to help our legacy supporters gain this sense of symbolic immortality we want to make them feel both important and valued, and part of a larger, meaningful cause and group of supporters. How practically, then, can we do that?


Remind legacy supporters of ongoing need


Although it’s good practice to offer legacy supporters some choice over the communications they receive, it’s probably best not to remove them automatically from other asks and fundraising communications. These – if done well – are likely to remind them of the ongoing need for, and importance of, the charity’s work. And, from a pragmatic fundraising perspective, there’s also evidence (again from the prolific Professor Russell James) that lifetime gifts often actually increase after a legacy is added to a will.


Simple ways to personalise the donor experience


We could also do our best to show donors that they are valued as an individual:


  • You could take an action as simple as sending handwritten letters and cards, illustrating that you have taken time to address them as an individual rather than sending a mass-mailed letter.
  • You might also be able to send them a small gift to recognise their pledge – perhaps you could source something made by a beneficiary, that might be particularly meaningful to them?
  • You could also take time to understand their individual interests and respond to them appropriately – for example, if a story about an aspect of your work that they might be interested in appears in the press, take a copy and put it in the post, or email it to them. Again, this is a sign that you consider them as an individual – that they are a person of value: and, by linking your communications to aspects of your work that they find particularly appealing, you are also enhancing their perception of being part of a larger meaningful cause.


Legacy events: being part of a meaningful community


Legacy events can also be a great way to enhance both ‘person of value’ and ‘world of meaning’. Sending someone a personal invite to an event, and ensuring that they have a positive experience while they’re there, can make them feel valued.


The content of the event – stories about the impact of the work and the longer-term vision of the organisation – can help to reinforce people’s sense of being part of something meaningful.


However, events also offer an additional social dimension: by interacting with others with similar perspectives who have made the decision to leave a legacy, the sense of being part of a meaningful community can be enhanced still further.


As older audiences become increasingly tech-savvy, you might also be able to replicate this experience in other ways – for example, a special webinar just for your legacy audience.


Some organisations, particularly schools and universities, achieve a similar outcome by creating legacy societies. Like events, an invite to join a society can make one feel valued, and the events can, like other legacy events, bring a sense of being part of a meaningful world and a supportive community. It may be worth exploring whether a more formal society might be attractive to your supporters.


An ongoing journey


In summary then, the legacy fundraisers job is not finished when someone writes their charity into a will – indeed, with the gap between last will and death being on average nearly seven years, and for many people, much longer – the relationship is often only just beginning. If, over those years, we can help people to feel like people of value in a meaningful world, we can help to ensure that our charity stays in their wills, as well as helping them to achieve the important identity goal of knowing that they will live on, long after their physical death.   


Dr Claire Routley [@ClaireyJaneR] is a research fellow at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy and founder of Legacy Fundraising Ltd

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