Fundraising is, essentially, the conversion of affinity into cheerfully-given financial support through passionate storytelling. The fundamentals of legacy fundraising are no different.
There is sometimes a sense amongst fundraisers, especially in education, that legacy marketing is an odd niche. It’s a bit outside the mainstream, and somewhat uncomfortable in that it combines money and death: and discussion of either, even on their own, is guaranteed to bring most Brits out in a cold sweat.
In this context it was especially significant that our industry body, the Institute of Development Professionals in Education (IDPE), recently hosted a round-table session proclaiming that legacy fundraising should be “the cornerstone of your development programme”.
I suspect that many of us may be able to see some of the fruits of legacy giving from where we’re sitting down to read this article. Oundle School was constituted as a charity in 1556 by a grateful former pupil of the guild school that occupied what is now the site of our senior day house.
It sounds rather obvious to say that receiving a large legacy can be transformational for a school. But it’s worth noting that, when the sector was last surveyed by IDPE in partnership with Graham-Pelton Consulting, 92 schools had received legacy income totalling £28.6m in the preceding two-year period, and 61 schools were anticipating pledged income of a further £23.4m at some future date. Moreover, the amount received represented only 20 per cent of the total philanthropic income at the schools concerned, causing some in the sector to believe that we could potentially achieve much more.
“The timing of receipts is of course the sole provenance of the Almighty”
Despite these impressive statistics, it can be difficult for legacies to find a stable place in a school’s fundraising strategy, and in the activities of even a well-established and well-resourced development office.
There are a number of reasons for this. Much of it derives from the choices we make in the face of pressures to achieve quick cash-flow. The planners amongst us can be discomfited by the difficulty of setting meaningful targets, connecting activities to outcomes, and thereby analysing performance. The timing of receipts is of course the sole provenance of the Almighty, which sits uncomfortably with leaders who like to be able, at least to some degree, to forecast and to influence.
The difficulty of target-setting
When I speak at conferences on the subject, I ask everybody in the room to think of a recent legacy that their institution has received. I then ask them to put their hands up if the legacy they’re thinking of was expected. Had the legator notified the school of their intention to leave a gift? Were they a member of the legacy society? Usually no more than 10 per cent of people put a hand up, and that correlates with my own experience.
We do a lot to promote legacy giving, but people most often respond by doing it without telling you that they have, even if you offer to reward them with an annual drinks party if they do. This makes target-setting nearly impossible. However, our sector-wide expectation of over £20m in future income is therefore hugely encouraging if, as I suspect, it is only a fraction of the amount that has been written into people’s wills.
“The trick for fundraisers, is to be favourably present in people’s minds when they revise their wills.”
Does this mean that we don’t need to run a legacy society? And what does it say about the value of all of the work that we do to promote legacies? It is important to stress that people will not leave legacies regardless of what we do, and they certainly won’t do it in any significant numbers if we do nothing. To understand this we must keep our focus on why people give.
Why people give
The conventional wisdom is that people make or revise their wills at three or four key points in their lives. The trick for fundraisers, therefore, is to be favourably present in people’s minds when those moments come. If you are, then your alumni may make a small gift at the earliest of these points that they feel able to. They may revise existing gifts upwards later in life if they are in a position to do so. Conversely, if your school is not thought of favourably, or not thought of all, then it’s possible — even common — for existing bequests to drop out of revised wills altogether. Such disappointments can’t always be prevented, and a clear legacy strategy, including a transparent and supportable proposition for long-term philanthropy, can make all the difference.
The key channels through which to deploy your all-important messages are tried-and-tested. We tend to think, in an increasingly digital world, that direct mail is just a small and diminishing facet of successful marketing, but it is the most popular means by which schools ask people to consider legacies, and it is proven to achieve results, especially when combined with personal contact and relationship-building.
Advertising in an alumni magazine can also be a useful way of giving a legacy programme a higher profile, and keeping it in peoples’ minds, which is a key objective. A web page, or a section thereof is, of course, indispensable in this day and age.
It might be assumed from some of the anecdotes I tell that I’m cynical about legacy societies, but the facts speak for themselves. Such societies, ostensibly about stewardship as much as they are about securing new gifts, correlate more markedly with successful legacy fundraising than any other variable.
Even schools with nascent legacy societies amassed average pledges worth £347k, whilst schools with no legacy society at all reported average pledges of only £26k. Like everything in our somewhat sensitive world, such societies are certainly a matter of taste. Only about 10 per cent of even our pledged legators regularly attend society events, which tend to take place once a year.
“Legacy societies correlate more markedly with successful legacy fundraising than any other variable.”
But most of the others, with a few eccentric exceptions, appreciate being members, and it is an important way to bind them in, make them feel appreciated, and ensure that they are communicated with regularly and appropriately.
A legacy programme has to be visible, bold, and unapologetic — yet subtle and dignified. So, what do you actually say? The starting point must be the long-term vision for the school. Then, if your school already has a history of philanthropy, whether or not it involves legacies specifically, indicating what that philanthropy has already achieved will make the point that funds are spent well and effectively, and that giving is not a new idea, but part of a tradition — a tradition from which the target audience has itself benefitted.
Generally speaking, legacy gifts are made without restriction, which makes it vitally important that the school’s strategy as a whole is not only well thought through, but attractively communicated, since it becomes in itself the cause for which you are seeking support.
It is best not to try to stimulate legacy gifts to specific activities — even if such activities might attract particular donors — in case, when the legacy becomes operative, the specific purpose is no longer being carried out at the school or is no longer a priority.
Leaving gifts to particular departments or subjects, however, is probably safe territory, but if you want a broader but nonetheless specific proposition for donors, then any permanent endowment has obvious attractions, especially if its object is to deliver financial aid to pupils in need of support.
Such a proposition accords with a strong shift in the sector towards raising funds for bursaries, which was probably accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic but which was well underway before it emerged.
It can seem a little crass to target legacy marketing at older people on account of their advancing years, but one thing that’s likely to appeal to them are the tax benefits of legacy giving.
“It can seem a little crass to target legacy marketing at older people.”
Awareness of these benefits still seems to be quite low: especially the fact that not only are charitable gifts deductible from a person’s taxable estate, but, if more than 10 per cent of the net estate is left to any number of charitable causes, the inheritance tax rate drops by 10 per cent from 40 per cent to 36 per cent.
It’s not something to market as tax-dodge (quite besides the morality of such a message). It is something which appeals to people who were minded to help you anyway, but concerned about the effects on their families. When we offer any illustrations we take great care, of course, to state that individuals should take professional advice regarding their own particular circumstances and that we are not qualified to give it.
“It’s not something to market as a tax-dodge.”
It’s the stories which matter
In closing, I’d observe that the most important phrase above is “people who were minded to help you anyway”. If legacy marketing is the cornerstone of a good development programme, is it as much because it focuses attention on the fundamentals of good fundraising as it is because it raises transformational sums in itself.
In planning a legacy programme, development professionals will be deploying the very best of their skills and strategies, patiently building affinity and relationships, and putting out well-crafted and disciplined messages about the history of our institutions and their plans for the future. Whatever the technical appeal of legacy giving, and however we create an audience for our stories, it is the stories which are themselves the essence of good and successful fundraising.
This feature first appeared in the latest edition of Independent School Managment Plus Magazine, out now.