As any legacy fundraiser will tell you, some of their most valuable gifts come from people they know nothing about. This was borne out by last year’s Legacy Marketing Benchmarks project. Drawing on hard data from 16 major charities, we learned that 14% of bequests came from supporters who had expressed an interest in leaving a legacy; 35% from other supporters who had not disclosed their gift while they were alive. But an astonishing 52% of legacies came from people with no detectible current or past relationship with the charity. Not only that, these ‘unknown’ legators were more likely to leave a residual bequest (typically worth £25-30,000) than the ‘known’ supporters.

Clearly, despite their invisibility, these donors felt a strong connection to the cause. But who were they? Why did they leave a legacy? And how – if at all – did they want to be communicated with?

Of course, fundraisers work hard to uncover their unknown legators; talking to next of kin, trawling supporter archives and searching the web. But, in the words of Captain Jack Sparrow, dead men tell no tales.

That’s where our Invisible Legator project comes in. Rather than second-guess the motivations of dead legators, we’re focusing on living people who have written a charitable will. Starting with a survey of 1,000 charitable will-makers (leaving around 3,000 charitable gifts), we’re then moving on to talk to clusters of donors, to probe their thoughts and feelings about the charities they have pledged to.

At this point, I’ll come clean and say that I have a charitable will. I guess that makes me a pledger. But I certainly don’t plan to tell the charities about my gifts!

I made my first will at 25 when I bought a flat with my then boyfriend (in those days twenty-somethings could afford a poky London flat!). With no dependents and brimming with youthful idealism, I included several charities in my will. But to be honest, the prospect of death seemed pretty remote then!

Over the years my will was updated as my circumstances evolved. But while the mix of charities may have changed, the principle of remembering a charity was firmly fixed.

By my forties, it was clear that I would not have children. Now the legacy decisions became more pressing. When I die, what will happen to my assets? Who will most need – and yes, deserve – any money I have left? For me, it’s a question of practicality as much as philanthropy.

I’m fond of my god-daughter and niece. But it’s now they could most use a lump sum, not when they reach middle age. Anyhow, their loving parents will undoubtedly see them right. Many others are not so fortunate.

I thought long and hard about the causes that matter to me. My lifelong love of nature (the environmental charity); the joys of living in the world’s most cosmopolitan city (the London arts venue); my good luck in being born when and where I was (the development charity); and my gratitude for a great state education (the campaigning charity).

I doubt if any of these marketing-savvy charities would identify me as a prime legacy prospect. One has never heard of me. I give occasionally to two, and I’m a member of one (great for priority tickets!). But there are other charities I give far more to right now.

My desire to leave to those four charities says as much about me as them – sparked by some abiding memory or deep-seated emotion. My gifts were not triggered by any specific fundraising communications – they just felt right.

For now, I’m happy with my choices. But I expect to review my will when the prospect of death becomes truly real to me. Then, I’ll re-consider: who – and what – is important in my life? Where would my money make the most difference?

At that point, I may well select completely different causes to support. That’s no reflection on what they have or have not done; how they did or did not treat me, but life moves on….

I may have lost a loved one to a pernicious disease. I may swap the glitzy London venue for a local gallery. I may have come across a hands-on charity that I trust to spend my money well. Or I may have become friends with someone who could really use some extra cash. But I can’t imagine ever writing ‘charity’ out of my will.

I hope you will excuse this indulgent waffle. I’m wanting to illustrate some of the important questions we are exploring in our research.

  • What proportion of ‘unknown’ legacies are in fact just ‘unrecognised’ – coming from people who identify themselves as supporters and would expect the charity to know about them?
  • How do childless people (who often leave the largest legacies) balance philanthropy with pragmatism? And does this affect the way they view charities?
  • Are cash legators, in fact, more generous, since they choose to leave beyond their tight-knit family circle?
  • Are donors moving up some relationship ‘pyramid’ with the legacy at the pinnacle? If so, can you encourage them to progress from one ‘level’ to the next?
  • Do legacy communications instil the idea of legacy giving or merely trigger the action? (Or indeed neither?)
  • Is it realistic to expect a pledger to stay loyal to your charity for 20, 30 years? What does effective ‘stewardship’ mean to them?
  • Once ‘hooked’, do people stay firm to the idea of leaving a charitable legacy, even if they change the charity mix?
  • How do people feel about being asked whether they have left a gift? Proud? Irritated? Mystified?
  • Do we need a new word for ‘pledger’ to distinguish between those who have left any gift and those who have gone on to tell the charity about it?

If you’re interested in hearing more about our Invisible Legator research, please click here

This blog was first published on the IoF website