Legacy fundraisers: is your job title letting you down?

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Legacy fundraisers: is your job title letting you down?

Legacy fundraisers: is your job title letting you down?

From the effectiveness of job titles to how organisations can encourage pledger loyalty, the latest legacy giving research contains crucial findings for legacy fundraisers. Dr Claire Routley explores the key takeaways


Trends in the legacy marketplace currently look positive. In their recent analysis of the market , Smee and Ford found that 37,261 generous people left legacies in 2015, donating an amazing £2.3bn to non-profits. This is the highest number of charitable estates ever recorded by the data analysis firm.


Similarly, according to Legacy Foresight’s Legacy Monitor, both legacy income and notifications remain strong, with a 10% increase in income across the 12 months until June 2016. Their analysis saw legacy values reach record highs with the average residuary gift reaching £60k, and the average pecuniary £4k.


With legacies being such high-value gifts, even small improvements in practice can make a significant difference to income, while a better understanding of what donors want can help us develop better donor experiences. There are a number of takeaways that recently published academic papers can offer legacy fundraisers to improve the way they identify, talk to and steward potential legacy donors.


In this article we’ll explore some of the recent papers that deal with who asks for legacies, how we can encourage interest in legacy giving, who gives legacies, and finally, how we can encourage feelings of loyalty to our organisations.


Paper 1: Testing the effectiveness of fundraiser job titles


One question that crops up time and again in conversation in the legacy world is what’s the best job title for a legacy fundraiser? Or, more precisely, what job title is most appealing to donors? Lots of people will offer opinions on the question, but up until now, we haven’t had any real evidence as to what works from the donor’s perspective.


In his recent paper, Testing the Effectiveness of Fundraiser Job Titles in Charitable Bequest and Complex Gift Planning, Russell James, professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, examines which titles are more effective in different giving situations.


In the study, James sets up four different giving scenarios and asks respondents who at the charity they were most likely to contact in each scenario, giving them various job titles to consider. In total, he tested 63 different job titles.


He classifies the various different job titles in three ways:

  • Institution centred (e.g. advancement, development, marketing)
  • Gift centred (e.g. major or planned gifts)
  • Donor centred (e.g. donor advising, donor guidance)


The poorest performing titles in the study tended to be those from the institution-centred group. James found that, of the thirteen lowest-performing titles, eleven included the words ‘development’ or ‘advancement’.


The better performing job titles were those that were gift- or donor-centred. However, some of the gift-centred titles performed well in one situation but not others – for example, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘chief real-estate gifting officer’ performed well when donors were asked who they would contact if they wanted to make a gift of real-estate, but not so well in other scenarios.


Given the issue with very specific titles outlined above, James identifies that more general gift-centred titles (e.g. chief individual gift officer) or donor-focused titles may fit a broader range of situations. However, he also identifies that there might be an ethical issue with titles that suggest the bearer is there purely to represent or support the donor (rather than their own organisation), or is able to offer independent advice. He suggests that, although not the very top performers, titles like ‘chief donor relations officer’, ‘chief donor officer’ or ‘director of donor relations’ might help to overcome this issue.




  • We should try and avoid titles which focus on the organisation, and those which arguably are sector jargon e.g. ‘development manager’. It’s likely these don’t mean much to donors.
  • Fundraisers with very particular responsibilities could use titles which do what they say on the tin, and reflect the types of gift they deal with e.g. ‘gifts in wills manager’. While they might not be the most imaginative of titles, James’ research suggests that they make it easy for the donor to know who to contact.
  • Donor-focused job titles like ‘donor officer’ are also more attractive than organisation-focused titles. As James points out, they may be particularly useful in smaller organisations, where one person may have multiple responsibilities.


Paper 2: Exploring the role of storytelling in legacy giving


Having thought about who does the asking, the second paper (also authored by Professor Russell James with some input from me), examines how to make the ask in the most effective way. Specifically, we look at the effect of stories about other legacy givers on intention to leave a gift.


In the paper, entitled We the living: the effects of living and deceased donor stories on charitable bequest giving intentions, we used an online survey asking people to rate their intention to give to various charities. We then asked them to read stories about people who were leaving legacies. The stories were framed so the donor was either alive (i.e. someone who had recently signed a will leaving a legacy), or dead (i.e. someone who had died and left a legacy), although in either case the donor was the same. After reading the stories, participants were asked about their likelihood of leaving a legacy. There was also a control group who weren’t given any stories.


Donors who had read any stories – whether the donor was alive or dead – expressed a greater interest in leaving a bequest than those who had read none. Those who had read stories about living people expressed a greater interest, as did those who read more stories about living people.


It might be that reading stories about other legacy donors helps to establish legacy giving as a social norm – indeed, there is other evidence to suggest that social norms may have a positive influence on legacy giving.




  • As sharing donor stories appears to have a positive effect on intention to give, it makes sense for charities to build these in across their communications. Indeed, many charities will have a whole range of places in which they can share stories, from their websites, to legacy booklets to social media to newsletters.
  • Although it might be relatively easy to find opportunities to share stories, collecting them can feel more challenging. Potentially, we could ‘drip-drip’ the opportunity to share stories across our legacy promotion and stewardship activities from free-text boxes on response forms, to encouraging staff members to ask donors for their stories, and even asking third-parties e.g. family members to share their loved ones’ stories, where appropriate.
  • We should also make sure we have robust policies and procedures for storing this personal information and making sure that we have the necessary permissions to share it with others.


Paper 3: Looking at stewardship and the question of ‘when’


We’ve looked at who should ask, and considered a particular dimension of how. The next paper – The Timing of Final Charitable Bequest Decisions – looks at who gives, and more particularly, when they give. It’s again authored by the prolific Professor Russell James, working with Christopher Baker, a research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. It problematises the idea that legacy fundraisers should seek to focus on their middle-aged supporters, arguing that legacy giving is dominated by decisions taken in old age and at the end of life.


James and Baker start by examining over 3,000 Australian probate records, looking at the age of the donor when the will was signed, and how long it was signed before death. They found that over three-quarters of legacy dollars were from wills signed at age 80 or older, and that the majority were signed within five years of death. The authors do point out, however, that earlier discussion, and indeed, earlier non-probated wills might have influenced these final documents.


The authors then examine data from a US-based longitudinal survey of people aged over 50. The survey includes a question as to whether people have included a charity in their will or trust. (Where the original survey respondent has died, their heirs will be interviewed as to what happened with the estate.)


They find that 60 per cent of plans were added in the five years before death. However, those who had reported having a legacy gift in their plans since joining the survey gave higher-value gifts: they made up 18% of gifts, but gave 37% of the value.


One of the most significant findings for me, is that only 55% of gifts stay in wills for longer than 10 years. The authors point out that these findings contradict earlier, snapshot research which suggested that once a donor included a legacy in their will, they rarely removed it. It underscores the vital importance of understanding legacy donors, and stewarding them appropriately.




  • The finding that many people are making legacy decisions at the very end of their lives could present an ethical quandary for fundraisers, as these supporters are more likely to be vulnerable than younger donors.
  • Therefore, it highlights the importance of building strong relationships with donors throughout their time supporting charities, and – for long-standing supporters, as long as they’re happy for the relationship to continue – even after they may have stopped making lifetime gifts. Then, when they come to make their last will, a gift to your organisation should feel like both a positive way to mark that relationship and to continue it on beyond their lifetime.
  • And of course, we should be ensuring a brilliant standard of stewardship for anyone kind enough to tell us that they are planning to remember our organisation with a gift, to help reduce the percentage of those who change their minds – they should know that their gift is needed, valued, and will be spent effectively.


Paper 4: To whom, or what, are donors loyal?


In the light of the findings about changes to wills above, marketing professors’ Walter Wymer and Sharyn Rundle-Thiele’s 2016 paper, Supporter Loyalty: Conceptualisation, Measurement and Outcomes  may have some particular relevance for legacy fundraisers.


The professors begin by differentiating supporter loyalty from supporter retention, arguing that often in the sector, we conflate the two terms, talking about loyalty as the length of time for which people give or similar. Instead, they define loyalty as emotional attachment and devotion to a particular organisation. They argue that emotional attachment might well lead to a higher number and value of gifts – as per traditional ‘loyalty’ metrics – but also potentially to volunteering, fundraising and, particularly interestingly for our purposes, legacy giving.


Their study finds that feeling a sense of loyalty has a statistically significant impact on stated likelihood of legacy giving, but the effect is relatively small.


However, the paper also examines what it is that supporters feel loyal towhen they express a sense of loyalty to an organisation. They find that people firstly feel loyal to the cause: the mission and purpose of the organisation, then the organisation’s beneficiaries, then finally staff, volunteers and donors.




  • As the paper shows, increasing feelings of loyalty among donors more generally could help to generate more legacy gifts.
  • Although the paper looks at legacy recruitment rather than retention, it could well be that feelings of loyalty could also reduce the numbers of people who change their mind about their legacy giving.
  • Given what donors feel loyalty to, part of the stewardship we offer could be showing the donor how their gift will specifically benefit the mission and the beneficiaries.
  • Similarly, the authors discuss how we might be able to cultivate loyalty by expressing the values shared between donor and organisation.
  • We could also potentially increase feelings of loyalty by building trust between donor and organisation – and also by demonstrating to supporters that we trust and value them.


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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