Case Stories

Gifts in Wills: How Charities Can Unlock the Legacy Giving Potential

| Updated November 29, 2017

Why Cystic Fibrosis Trust actively promotes legacy giving

U.K. charity Cystic Fibrosis Trust gets about 10 percent (£1 million) of its annual fundraising income from gifts left in wills.

But with Legacy Foresight research showing that health charities can expect to receive much more (about a third of their income) through legacies, the London-based organization has been working to increase its share.

Legacies account for a quarter of the total amount given to U.K. charities annually, and are worth over £2.24 billion each year, according to Charity Financials.

Cystic Fibrosis Trust had long avoided mentioning wills when communicating with supporters. The disease is a life-shortening one, says Michael Clark, gifts in wills and in-memory manager, and many of the Trust’s supporters have been personally affected in some way by the condition. Its yearly £1 million income from legacies has therefore been raised without any active campaigning by the charity.

“We felt we had to be very careful about marketing anything in a way that implied we would benefit from someone’s death,” Clark says. “So we’ve got supporters who’ve been with us for years, but they had never seen us promote legacies.”

About four years ago the charity began actively marketing legacies and now produces marketing materials (including videos), trains staff to talk about gifts in wills and has joined the U.K.’s Remember a Charity coalition. The charity's annual legacy fundraising budget (excluding salaries for Clark and one junior colleague) is worth 0.02 percent of the return generated from legacies each year.

Drip feeding

Rather than a full-on campaign, says Clark, talking about wills involves a “drip-drip”-type of communication, so that supporters become increasingly used to the idea of considering leaving a gift.

Year-round, this includes Facebook posts (which are not targeted to any specific age group) and adverts in the charity’s magazine. In September, the charity runs a Gifts in Wills awareness month, which coincides with the annual Remember a Charity Week. The Trust’s efforts in September 2014, which included offering a free will-writing service to supporters, resulted in 212 new legacy enquiries and about 80 wills written, 75 percent of which included a gift to Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

This year, the Trust will contact 12,000 of its supporters to offer them a free will-writing service, in partnership with the National Free Wills Network (supporters can take advantage of the service with no obligation to include the Cystic Fibrosis Trust). The charity is also organizing its first focus groups, in three cities, to get supporters’ feedback on how it can better promote legacy giving.

Getting a mention in someone’s will doesn’t mean job done, though. “We make sure [donors] receive regular updates on our work, and we continue to mention that we’re aware they’ve left a gift,” Clark says. “We’ll also send them a Christmas card and invite them to any engagement events — partly to show them the work we’re doing and the effect it has, but also to tell them about our plans for the future, and to remind them that 10 percent of the work we do wouldn’t be possible without wills.”

Changing attitudes

Although 35 percent of Brits say they would be happy to leave a gift to a charity in their will, just seven percent actually do so; in Scotland, just 3.8 percent of people do so despite 40 percent claiming they are open to it. That suggests a big opportunity for more revenue, if nonprofits can understand and tackle the barriers preventing people fulfilling their good intentions.

Clark says one of the barriers to people leaving gifts in wills is simply that charities haven’t asked them.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) sets the bar high, raising 66 percent of its income from legacies, and was the second-most popular charity (after Cancer Research UK) to leave a gift to in 2016. Clark believes charities can learn from RNLI’s communication: “When you come into contact with them, you learn that gifts in wills are very important to them. They’re not shy about saying: ‘this is the way to support us’”.

For Cystic Fibrosis Trust, an important step toward being more outspoken was to change attitudes among staff.

With a strong focus on community or supporter-led fundraising and a team of 23 employees working directly with supporters across the U.K., it makes sense to allow those staff to spread the word, says Clark. At fundraising events, Cystic Fibrosis Trust staff are not only on the ground thanking marathon runners or bake sale organizers for their support — they’re now also giving them information about the free will-writing service (“a useful conversation-starter”, says Clark) or telling people what those gifts allow the charity to do.

Training is needed, though, to help address reservations about raising an awkward topic. “We aim to give our staff the confidence to broach it, to show it's a perfectly normal topic,” says Clark. “There’s a perception that when we talk about wills, they are a very private thing (which they are), but also that you’re talking about death, and nobody wants to have a conversation about death. It’s just a cultural thing in this country.”

How does the Trust get round that? The training emphasizes “that we’re asking supporters to include a gift in their will during their lifetime,” explains Clark. “Writing a will is about protecting your loved ones and any charity you support — just like when you’re setting up a pension you’re protecting yourself in retirement.”

It’s also recognizing that leaving a legacy gift won’t be for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask.

“This is just another way to choose to support us,” says Clark. “It’s no different to asking someone to run a marathon: I’d like everyone one to do it, but a lot of people will say ‘No way’. That’s fine — there are other ways to support us. Our job is to explain how easy it is to leave a gift, to include family and friends first and then perhaps a charity, and that everyone one has something to give.”

Return on investment

With return on investment expected in about 10 years (the average time between someone writing a will and dying is around seven to 10 years), how does Cystic Fibrosis Trust track the success of its marketing efforts?

Clark says around 50 people per year now include a gift to the Trust through the free wills scheme, but that many others may well be including a gift in their wills without telling the charity (as many people did before the free will-writing service was available). "That should prove to increase our income in the long term," he says. The goal is to get “significantly closer” over the next 10 years toward the one-third benchmark, which would require approximately 180 people to include the charity in their will each year.

It's not just about the number of wills. Death rates are expected to increase over the next two decades as the baby boomer generation passes away, which could be an opportunity for increased legacy income. But as Clark points out, the overall value of their estates may well decrease, with more older people helping grandchildren to buy property, and extended retirements increasing the costs of elderly care.

Such factors may be out of a charity’s control. But ultimately, Clark believes that successful fundraising will depend on investing in legacies. “Many charities are still looking for a quick return,” he says. “We’re looking for long-term, increased, sustainable income. It’s a very different form of fundraising.”


Photo credit: Cystic Fibrosis Trust

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