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Measure legacy appeal activities

Measure legacy appeal activities

February 2020

I’ve only worked in one non-profit that had a real, live Planned Giving (legacy) Director.  I’m sure it’s become a whole department since my time at the American Civil Liberties Union.  Like many directors of development, I’ve been the legacy ‘department’ … as well as the events coordinator, grants manager, membership director, major gifts and capital campaign director — you name it! 

Here is one view on legacy fundraising from the trenches:

I have long believed that bequests should be placed in a board-restricted endowment and only released into the annual budget for one-off projects, capital purchases, or emergencies.  But in many UK charities, legacies are treated as a regular income stream instead of as precious, non-renewable gifts. 

As a result of this casual view of legacy gifts, a whole new world of ‘outcomes measurement’, ‘pipeline development’, and now ‘conversion tracking’ seems to have sprung up.  Untrained or junior staff members are thrown into legacy fundraising and then placed under immense pressure to meet targets they do not understand and against which, because of their inexperience, they cannot push back.  Unrealistic target-setting is also the predictable result of a charity culture where the ‘fundraising’ department is responsible for raising voluntary giving while trustees, senior executives, and programme staff get on with the ‘real’ work.  Don’t get me started.

Anyway, an interesting conversation happened in one of my social-media legacy groups recently.  Someone asked about the best method for tracking the rate of converting bequest enquiries into legacy pledges.  This caused a fellow group member to comment that any such methodology would not provide meaningful information.  For one thing, over the course of supporters’ lives much can change, including their relationship with your charity.  [Also, to be accurate, there is no such thing as a ‘legacy pledge’ unless it’s in the form of an irrevocable trust or charitable annuity.] 

I said Amen to that, and commented further: 

“Target-driven legacy fundraising has the capacity to become un-philanthropic. The pressure on staff to ‘produce’ undermines good donor-development practice.  In the case of legacies, good practice means taking time to build relationships, and therefore measuring types and numbers of activities but not necessarily direct outcomes.” 

Examples of annual legacy development activities:  mentions of bequests in regular and dedicated communications; cultivation events for prospective bequest donors; inviting legacy society* members to events that provide special access to your trustees, charity executives, patrons, or celebrity supporters; actions to honour donors after their deaths; legacy society members asked to provide testimonials for your web site and appeal letters; major gifts solicitations followed up where legacy giving has been discussed … and so on.

Bequests will come in, depending on the number, quality, regularity, and sensitivity of your activities — and if the mission, vision, stability, and effectiveness of your charity have been consistent over time.

Development staff need to get on with the business of drafting appeals, managing events, doing the gift and data entry, analysing trends, segmenting lists, qualifying major gifts prospects, thanking and stewarding donors, and reporting on fundraising outcomes and legacy activities.  When bequests eventually come in, celebrate!  But resist creating annual cash targets or trying to project future cash outcomes from the number of legacy inquiries ‘converted’ into stated intentions that might (and almost equally, might not) come to fruition years down the road. 

Legacy donors are not pledging in response to your appeals; they are pledging to your mission.  Harness that emotion, celebrate that devotion!

It’s more useful to make sure that legacy donors remain annual donors, and that your systems never forget your followers’ legacy intentions once they stop making annual gifts — as they will one day, if you’ve done your job correctly. 

Want help to start a straightforward, effective legacy programme?  Get in touch!

*Or whatever you call your supporter circle for those who have expressed positive legacy intentions.

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