Legacy donations: The situation

What do we know?
Charities are increasingly delivering services once considered the responsibility of the welfare state, whilst operating in an increasingly competitive fundraising market. Achieving a return on investment that keeps trustees happy and reassures the public requires an in-depth understanding of audiences and constant innovation.

The challenge is important and complex and we feel that digital can play a significant role in increasing returns in this area. We ran eight user feedback sessions to investigate.

Our approach
Ultimately, we want to find out how charities can use digital more effectively when marketing legacy donations. We decided that qualitative interviews would be the best way to help us understand how to improve the user experience for potential donors.

As this was a creative exercise, we decided against speaking to people already planning on leaving a gift in their will to a charity. We felt those already familiar with terminology and marketing techniques would skew any insight.

The participants
Due to the financial significance and the formal planning required, we rationalised legacy giving to be in the same semantic field as buying a pension or life insurance. If people are mature enough to plan their financial futures, they are forward-thinking enough to seriously consider making a will – and leaving part of it to a charity. With this in mind we decided to recruit people engaging with – or who had engaged with – researching these products.

Initial thoughts from e3

It’s a tricky ask
Asking, or even hinting at, leaving a legacy donation will, for some people, be a highly emotive, challenging ask. We didn’t feel that standard demographic information could be used to successfully predict how people respond to discussions around death, especially in the context of another topic characteristically avoided by the British, namely money and wealth.

People will expect to complete the transaction online
You can apply for a mortgage online, or get the ball rolling to organise a burial at sea. But when it comes to letting a charity know that you plan to leave them money in your will, it typically involves a phone call and a face-to-face meeting. We feel that this barrier will dissuade all but those most dedicated to the cause, and the task in hand.

Our observations

Reactions to content
Broadly speaking, people were underwhelmed by the legacies content they saw. The primary issue was that the content did not interest those who weren’t yet ready to make a legacy commitment. Typically there was a lack of case studies and the information that was there felt instructional rather than engaging on an emotional level. Ultimately, the sell was focusing on those who needed the least persuasion.

People don’t appreciate how much charities rely on legacies
One participant, who worked in the operations team of a charity, predicted that 0.2% of Cancer Research’s income came from legacy fundraising. He was genuinely shocked to find that it was in fact their largest revenue stream at 33% of their total income (2012/2013). When discussing this misconception, he concluded that his incorrect prediction would make him unlikely to consider leaving a legacy donation.

Suggested donation amounts aren’t relevant to legacies
The sites we looked at didn’t promote the value of a donation in the context of a legacy. Suggested amounts for one-off donations and monthly direct debits were too small and too short term to get people thinking about leaving a larger legacy donation.

When we consider that all participants were new to the idea of leaving a legacy donation to a charity, without a suggestion of what constitutes a ‘normal’ amount, or what this amount could do for the good cause, people weren’t confident of the best way to progress.

Those unable to leave significant amounts felt excluded
The cost of living is up; wages are down. Feeling wealthy
requires more than it did twenty years ago. In reality, there is no ‘normal’ legacy donation amount. However, those unable to leave huge sums need to know that their contributions are valued.

People would complete the task online
We thought that people would want to complete the task of committing to leave a legacy, entirely online. We were right. With this in mind we feel it is imperative for people to have the option to ‘convert’ online. Even if the conversion is not formally writing a will, and committing to leave money to a charity; the motivated user needs to be provided with the opportunity to feel they have made significant steps towards doing so.

How can digital content help?

Make people aware of revenue streams
Conventionally, charities make people aware of what they spend money on. This approach reassures the public that the charity is being run efficiently and reassures potential donors that their money will be spent wisely. A graphical device demonstrating the revenue streams that keeps charities moving would be equally valuable.

Presenting this information across all digital channels would educate users about the value of legacies. The aim of this would be to create a donor base that understands the value of legacies. A donor base with this kind of empathy and understanding will be more inclined to consider
the possibility of leaving a legacy themselves.

Provide contextual donation amounts
Styling suggested donation amounts as a ‘shopping list’ helps potential donors to understand what their donation can achieve, e.g. £5 equates to one mosquito net.

Online, one-off and monthly donations are incentivised through shopping list-style amounts by most charities. In this context, when shopping lists are done well, the content changes according to whether it’s a one-off or ongoing donation. A one-off donation is encouraged through an item or service has an immediate, lasting and meaningful impact. Lists promoting monthly giving suggest development and growth that depend on the regular donation amount.

Similar strategic positioning of potential donation amounts needs to happen in the case of legacies. The messaging should help the donor to understand that their donation will have a lasting and significant effect, ideally with a permanent outcome.

Make sure that smaller donation amounts appear valued
When providing a contextual donation amount, a range of incomes should be accommodated. The people we spoke to felt that a legacy was a significant amount of money i.e. hundreds of thousands. Those unable to provide this kind of donation felt excluded. In this instance, donors in a position to give a smaller amount, in the low thousands, should be targeted.

Even if the conversion task is soft, make sure that there is one
It is important for the motivated donor to feel they can take a significant step towards achieving their goal of leaving a legacy online. If someone is motivated to do this at a particular moment, they should be provided with the online tools that make them feel as though they can. (It may be that the charity will need to follow up over the phone but the donor should have the perception of acting independently.) However this initial conversion manifests – it could be as simple as completing an expression of interest form – it needs to be treated as the start of a conversation that feeds into a bigger CRM strategy.

Start a conversation
A key challenge will be to ensure that the donor is not given the opportunity to feel that deferring their giving (leaving a legacy donation rather than, for example, a monthly direct debit) is an acceptable alternative to providing support throughout their lifetime. A CRM programme will need to effectively monitor how this plays out.

Implementing these ideas at your charity
Though delivering on these ideas will require tact and sensitivity, this challenge needs to be tackled with confidence – and no hint of apology.
Speak to your supporters, learn how they feel about this emotive topic, and decide how their needs should fit into your brand and development strategy. These decisions will define the approach needed for your organisation to tackle this challenge through digital.

For further details, contact James Lock:
e: james.lock@e3.co.uk

The first paragraph of this article was updated on 17th September 2014 following reader comments.