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Are legacies worth the effort?

The Management Centre

=mc Fundraising Consultant and co-leader of The National Arts Fundraising School David Burgess shares insights on legacy giving. 

I am very lucky that my job sees me working with organisations across the charitable sector on a wide range of projects. That said, it’s amazing how often days end up having unofficial themes. Monday was definitely a “museum legacy” day for me. Having run a training course for Shared Enterprise and museums in the East of England during the day, I had the pleasure of guest hosting a Museum Hour Twitter discussion about legacies in the evening. Legacies remain a huge source of untapped potential for the arts, culture and heritage sector so it was fantastic to see so many organisations getting involved.

With such a big topic, it is not always possible to get to the heart of the matter in 140 characters. Having had some time to reflect on the many interesting questions, ideas and challenges that came up I thought it would be useful to pull together 5 common themes that came out during the day.

1) Who leaves legacies?



While there is an average legacy donor profile (82, female, lives in the South East), the great thing about legacies is that anybody can leave one. This means that all of your existing supporters could be legacy prospects.

However, as Dr Sarah Flew (@c19thLondon) mentioned during the discussion, currently only 7% of British people leave a charitable legacy in their Will. This is despite the fact that 75% donate during their lifetime. Campaign groups, such as Remember A Charity and Legacy10 are working with the sector to try and increase this figure. I would definitely recommend getting to know both groups.

For organisations with an active legacy programme, it is worth drawing up your own profile of legacy donors based on the people that have left gifts to your organisation. Understanding who is currently supporting you in this way will enable you to focus your resources in future. For organisations looking to set up a legacy programme, it can often be useful to look at the profile of donors to similar organisations in your area.

Writing a Will is an incredibly personal event and many legacy donors will not inform the charity in advance of their intentions. In fact, in some charities as many as 50% of legacies come from donors previously unknown to the organisation.

However, for the most engaged/committed supporters of an organisation it is the natural last step of the donor journey.

This led to an interesting discussion, started by Katy Jackson (@katy_heritage):

While this group shouldn’t be the only target audience (not least, as somebody flagged, because of the average museum salary!), people did feel that the strength of engagement with volunteers and staff members meant they shouldn’t be forgotten when talking about legacies.

2) How do we talk about legacies?


Legacy marketing needs to include two strands – a general awareness raising element and a more targeted approach.

As it is rare that you will know when a potential legacy donor is going to write or amend their Will, drip feeding the message helps to give you the best chance of being in the donor’s mind when the time comes. Stories in newsletters and annual reviews, signage within the venue and messages on other fundraising literature are all channels through which you can promote legacy giving. This should include regular messages about the ways that people can support through a legacy gift, and examples of people that have already left a gift.

Research from the USA by Professor Russell James showed that life stories (i.e from people who had included a gift in their Will but were still alive) had more impact than deceased stories (where the donor had died and the legacy realised). It is not clear at this stage whether the same is true in the UK.

One approach used to raise awareness was to host Legacy Awareness days, often involving Legacy Ambassadors.

While there is often a level of secrecy around Wills and their contents, some legacy donors will be happy to talk about their decision to leave a gift – what motivated them, how they found the process and what it means to them. As with all other fundraising streams, people respond well to asks from their peers – particularly when that peer has already donated.

As Katie mentioned (above) these are often targeted at existing supporters – something that inspired Karen-Emma:

Some charities will also involve local financial advisors and/or solicitors in these events. In particular, free Will Writing workshops have proven very popular. Research by Remember A Charity has shown how important advisors are for legacy fundraisers – in a study they found that three times as many Britons would leave a legacy if they were reminded to consider doing so by their solicitor.

3) What challenges do we face?


Quite early on in the discussion it became clear that one of the major barriers non-development/fundraising staff face is feeling they don’t know about or understand their organisation’s legacy programme.

Sad though it may be, donors rarely want to speak to fundraisers. The people on the frontline of the organisation’s work – the heroes and heroines – are much more interesting. For museums, this includes the curators, conservators and outreach workers. For this reason, internal communication about fundraising is vital.

Not everybody in the organisation needs to be able to talk about the different types of legacy, or the inheritance tax calculations. However, those engaging with visitors should be able to talk about why legacies are important and who to direct people to should they receive any enquiries.

There was also a perceived challenge because legacies involved talking about two things us Brits get nervous about – death and money.

However, a common phrase that comes up frequently when I’ve spoken to legacy donors is “life-affirming”. The process of “choosing your own memorial” and deciding how you would like to be remembered can be incredibly positive.

Professor Russell James says “Don’t lead with death”. People don’t want to confront their own mortality. Highlighting donors’ positive experiences is a nice way to approach the subject. 

4) How will Legacy Giving change?


Legacy giving is currently worth £2.2billion each year to the UK charity sector. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of 19 Comic Reliefs each year.

The good news (from a fundraising point of view) is that this figure is steadily growing. In fact, Legacy Foresight’s “Legacy Giving 2050” report predicts that legacy giving will reach £5.2billion by 2050. This is due to the combination of an increase in the number of people dying each year, a more philanthropic generation (the Baby Boomers) reaching legacy age, more people dying with no children and an anticipated improvement in the economic climate.

Of course, these are only predictions and a number of things have changed since the report was published (not least, changes to the Inheritance Tax thresholds, the judgement of the Ilott v Mitson Case regarding “reasonable provision” and Sir Stuart Etherington’s Fundraising Review, including the likely establishment of the Fundraising Preference Service). However, with the average time for a legacy programme to come to maturity currently 4.4 years, this is the time for organisations to get into this space.

5) Are legacies worth the effort?


Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer from the group was a resounding yes:

For me, there are four reasons why your organisation needs to seriously consider legacy giving as a key part of your fundraising strategy:

  1. The annual value of legacy gifts in the UK is currently equal to the total annual grant giving of the top 1,000 trusts and foundations. What’s more, as we have seen above, this is growing, with the total value of legacies expected to overtake trusts by 2050.
  2. Most legacy gifts are unrestricted, contributing to vital core costs
  3. The average pecuniary gift to the arts and culture sector is £19,000, while the average residuary gift is £50,000. For the majority of legacy donors this is money that they could not donate during their lifetime, as it is tied up in property and other assets. A legacy programme enables them to support your work in a way that they couldn’t when they were alive. On average, a legacy can be worth as much as six times the total value of all gifts during the donor’s lifetime.
  4. Linked to this, it gives the donor the chance to make a significant difference to an organisation that is special to them. It also gives them the chance to be remembered in a way that they would like. (In his Saturday Telegraph article for Remember A Charity In Your Will Week 2015, writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth said that “The great joy to be had from creating a Will is that it allows you to choose the memorial you most want for yourself “)

One beautiful (and exceptional) example of this is the legacy given by Lean Scully, who left £3.7million to Edinburgh International Festival – at the time the biggest gift ever received by the Festival. The Festival had no idea that Ms Scully was capable of leaving such a gift – during her life, Lean had donated £45 a year – or that they would receive so much.

But, as Karen-Emma White pointed out:


Finally on this, Miranda at Shared Enterprise kindly shared this stat, drawn from the IoF’s Fundratios report.

I am slightly sceptical about the resilience of the stats included in the report (not least because ROI for legacies is notoriously difficult to calculate due to the timeframes involved and the number of touchpoints the donor will have had with the charity – lifetime individual giving, fundraising events etc). However, it is invariably true that even modest investment in this area can bring rewards.

5) Who does this well? In particular, which museums stand out?


As might be expected, the Health sector does very well in this space, representing 38% of the top 1,000 legacies in 2012/13. Traditionally, educational causes and Higher Education establishments also do well, particularly with larger bequests.

In the museum and gallery space, perhaps not surprisingly some of the bigger organisations were the first to come to mind for their work in this field. The V&A, the British Museum and the Tate all received mentions for the way they promote legacies, and the ways they engage people that have pledged support. I would recommend looking at these websites to see how they approach legacy giving.

However, there were also some nice examples from smaller organisations outside of the capital: (Click the image below to view the video) 

My favourite example comes from a museum library that had a lovely way of remembering legacy donors. Within the library they had a commemorative bookcase, with the donors names inscribed on the spines of the books. Simple, relevant and emotive.

As someone that likes to reward risk, I’d also like to flag up those people that kindly put their organisations forward as examples of museums running legacy programmes:


Huge thanks to everybody that took part in the sessions on Monday and apologies if I have missed any questions or comments. Please do get in touch to share your examples of great legacy campaigns, add to the discussions or to talk about how =mc can help with your legacy programme.

David Burgess

Fundraising Consultant, The Management Centre (=mc)

Co-leader, The National Arts Fundraising School

Email David at

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