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Legacies remain one of the last great opportunities in fundraising. Massively fewer of us give in death than we do in life, even though we often care passionately about the causes we support. Often this happens because folks either aren’t asked or are asked poorly.

So what are the basics of legacy fundraising?

First, drop the ‘L’ word. Legacies sound like something only wealthy people can do and bequests sound like something only royalty can do. Offering donors the opportunity to leave a ‘gift in their will’ is infinitely smarter. All of us can do that, and one of the big reasons people don’t leave more gifts of this nature is that they don’t believe their gift will make a difference. So language of this type reassures people and, if we also celebrate small gifts alongside the large in our newsletters and online, then this remaining barrier can be overcome.

Solicitations should also reflect the mindset of the donor. The science of temporal decision making tells us that donors can be thinking in a current mindset or a future mindset. For legacies they will be thinking long into the future, since most of us are not going to be dying any time soon. So what is the difference between these two mindsets? To raise money for the annual fund it is perfectly appropriate to talk about the difference that a donor can make with their gift today: $50 buys … $100 buys… But when it comes to the future people think in a more abstract way, so legacy solicitations need to talk more in terms of the values that could be delivered or perpetuated by a gift of that nature.

Similarly, in the here and now it is appropriate to talk about the building blocks of your service. So in the university context, one would raise money by talking about books, professors, information technology, etc. “Give now to buy those things…” In the future mindset, by contrast, appeals need to focus more on what that investment will mean for society, so perhaps equality of opportunity, developing the local economy, etc. Another way to look at this is that the present focuses within the organisation while the future mindset lifts the donor out of the organisation to see the wider impact for the community. You could raise money for a hospice in the present by talking about the care provided to the patients and their overall experience. In the future you would need to stress why that is important for the community, so a better message might be ‘no-one should experience unnecessary pain and suffering at the end of their life’.

The future mindset is also inherently more positive than the present. So legacy communications need to stress all the good things that can happen if the donor leaves a gift. In the present mindset you can either promise rewards or punishments, and both appear to work equally well, although there are obvious ethical issues with the latter.

So what happens after we recruit a legacy pledger to our organisation? Research tells us that these individuals pay much more attention to the communications they receive and are much more concerned with the numbers associated with our performance. How effective and efficient is the organisation? There is an interesting commercial parallel here. We know, for example, that much advertising for new cars is actually consumed by people who already own the vehicle. Having made a significant investment, consumers get home and experience what marketers refer to as cognitive dissonance. In plain English they worry about their choices and so seek reassurance that the selection they just made was a smart one. It appears to be the same with legacies. Folks want to believe their choice is the right one and thus seek more information to confirm that this is indeed the case. Having a separate pattern of communication that caters for the needs of pledgers is a smart strategy.

It can also be smart because fewer than 40% of donors report being treated any differently after notifying the nonprofit of their intentions. Legacies are of course revocable gifts and thus nonprofits have to work harder to make people feel special, appreciated and valued. Many nonprofits now make the effort to bring legacy pledgers ‘closer’ to the organisation, treating them as insiders and creating experiences that reflect their deepened level of interest and support.

Legacy asks must also be ubiquitous. It is all but impossible to know when someone might be motivated to give this kind of gift. Typically there will have been a major change of some kind in their life – the birth of a child, death of a parent, the purchase of a large capital item such as a house. So legacies need to be front and centre on our websites, in our newsletters, and they should be ambient in all else.

The final thing I’d say is that case studies are important. Donors pay a lot of attention to what other donors like themselves are doing. And research tells us that case studies of what live donors are doing are far more powerful than case studies of what dead donors have done. The balance of evidence is also that stories of the passion of ‘real’ donors are more powerful than those of team members or board members who have also pledged a bequest. I’m not suggesting that pledges of this kind aren’t important – of course they are – but in solicitations real donors will typically help garner a much higher response.


Dr Adrian Sargeant

Adrian is CEO of The Philanthropy Centre, which provides fundraising training and education for charities and other nonprofits. It also provides bespoke research and consultancy for clients in the USA, Europe, UK and Australia. Adrian was formerly Professor of Fundraising at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University.

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