Bequests to churches and religious charities have long been central to legacy giving.  Some of the stalwarts of today’s legacy sector – from the Salvation Army to Christian Aid to the Children’s Society – operate with an explicitly religious (i.e. Christian) ethos. But, in recent years, faith-based legacies’ share has been waning relative to contemporary, secular causes. So, is this the end for faith-based legacies, or just the start of a new phase?

According to Smee & Ford, there were over 17,000 bequests to British churches and other religious organisations in 2015 – that’s 15% of all gifts in wills. In value terms the share is somewhat lower; our latest estimates, based on charity accounts and data from the main church groups, suggest that in 2017/18 ‘faith-based’ legacies totalled £330m or 10% of all legacy income.

While religious bequests are significant in both volume and value terms, their growth has been slow relative to the legacy sector overall. Over the past ten years, faith-based legacy incomes have grown by just 2.7% p.a. compared to 4.4% p.a. for other (i.e. secular) charities.

So, who leaves to faith-based organisations? And what might that tell us about future trends? Our 2017 Invisible Legator research sheds some light here.

8% of the 1,000 legacy donors we surveyed had included at least one church or religious organisation in their will. In many respects, these donors are a legacy fundraiser’s dream. Compared to the average legacy donor, they appeared to be far more altruistic; over the previous three months half had given over £50 to charity (compared to an average of just 18%), and 81% had volunteered (versus an overall average of 46%). Perhaps reflecting this altruism, they also supported more charities in their will: 50% had included three or more charities compared to 38% across the board.

Significantly, the age profile of those faith-based donors was also older: 57% of them were aged 65+, compared to 42% across all the legacy donors surveyed. There may be two factors at play here. First, generational: younger donors are more secular than older groups. The latest census data confirms this: 23% of 50-somethings claim to have no religion, compared to just 9% of 75+s. Second, life stage: perhaps we discover – or rediscover – our faith in later life, turning to our church or faith-based charity when work and family commitments reduce and questions about mortality loom large.

Will faith-based legacies dwindle along with today’s war-baby generation?

I believe not – for two reasons. First, our society is coming more multicultural and multifaith. Again, from census data: just 3.5% of today’s 75+s belong to non-Christian faiths including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism. Amongst today’s 50-somethings that figure rises to 6.3%. According to the highly regarded Pew Research Center, the percentage of the British population from minority faith groups will double over the next 30 years, from 8% to 16%.

Legacy giving among these faith groups is relatively rare at present, in part due to their age profile.  However, as these populations age and become wealthier, we anticipate a significant increase in their gifts in wills, many of them to their places of worship and religious charities.

Second, because although engagement in organised religion may be dropping, a sense of ‘spirituality’ is still central for many people. During recent focus groups (Baby Boomer Legacies 2019) we heard numerous examples of a kind of personal spirituality – from the practice of less familiar religions (such as Taoism or Buddhism) to a burning belief in environmentalism, to a more generalised sense of ‘karma’ (the idea of getting back what you give out).

This qualitative evidence was borne out in quantitative surveys too. Just 28% of 50—59s considered themselves to be a religious person or guided by religious principles; 8% of them attended a place of worship regularly. At the same time, another 21% of those 50-somethings agreed that “I regard myself as a spiritual rather than a religious person”.

(In contrast, 41% of the 75+s questioned considered themselves to be religious or guided by religious principles, but just 12% regarded themselves as spiritual)

So, although the number of bequests left to churches and Christian charities may be on the wane, I believe that the desire to leave faith-driven legacies that reflect a fundamental belief in something bigger than oneself will continue to underpin legacy giving behaviour.

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