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Fundraising Fundamentals, Section 7.9


Planned Gifts, Bequests

Legacy fundraising is increasing in many countries around the world. In the UK it has been estimated that income to the charity sector from legacies will be £5.3 billion by 2050.

Many institutions adopt a reactive approach to legacies and passively wait for bequests to be notified before they take any action. However, increasingly institutions are developing proactive legacy programmes to encourage prospects not only to include the institution in their wills but also to inform the institution of that decision through making a ‘pledge’.

Knowing about the value of pledges helps institutions forecast the level of legacy income they might expect in the future.

Legacy fundraising is a medium- to long-term activity, but it requires only modest investment and can reap large dividends. There are several types of legacy gifts, including:

  • Pecuniary legacies. The deceased leaves a specific amount to the institution.
  • Residuary legacies. The deceased leaves the residual of his estate to the institution once all the pecuniary legacies have been fulfilled.
  • Proportional legacies. The deceased leaves a set percentage of her estate to the institution.
  • Bequests of specific items. The deceased leaves an item, such as a piece of art or a collection of books, to the institution.

Pecuniary legacies and bequests of specific items tend to be easier to obtain, but residuary and proportional legacies tend to be of higher value. Bequests of specific items can also be problematic (e.g., it is great if someone bequests a Van Gogh painting, but you are also left with the responsibility of storing, insuring and transporting it; if you are left a house, there may be a sitting tenant). Having a gift acceptance policy can help with these challenges.

Getting Past the Taboos

Leaving a legacy should be viewed, not as a depressing activity, but rather as a positive opportunity to make a positive impact, both financially and socially.

When discussing legacies with a prospect it is important to be professional and knowledgeable but also empathic and reassuring. You should not approach legacy discussions dressed in black and wearing a sombre expression. What you are asking someone to do is life-affirming and not wholly focused on the difficult topic of his or her demise.

Legacy fundraising is a very people-focused activity. To be successful, legacy fundraisers must develop strong trust-based relationships with their prospects.

Telling People About Legacy Opportunities

There are several ways to inform people about the opportunity to leave a legacy. For example:

  • Through your website. Have a clear guide to leaving a legacy available as a download or to read online. Make sure the link is from your homepage.
  • Through articles in your alumni magazine and other publications about how legacies have made a difference and interviews with legacy pledgers about their motivations to leave a legacy.
  • Through online podcasts and video interviews with legacy pledgers.
  • Through inserts in mailshots.
  • Through telephone campaigns (to provide information, not make a request).
  • During visits and in-person meetings with prospects.
  • At events, with leaflets and posters.
  • Through free ‘will clinics’ with legal professionals.
  • By a promotion during Will Aid’s ‘make a will’ month (

Send out consistent, regular and upfront message about legacies, and use as many communication channels as possible to keep the idea of leaving a legacy at the forefront of every prospect’s mind. The topic of legacies should be communicated in a manner that actively promotes and celebrates legacies as a way of helping people.

Making It Easy

For many prospects, making a will is a daunting prospect. They worry it will be a complicated and expensive process and they do not know where to start.

By developing a legacy information pack, you can guide prospects through this process. You need to make sure that you are up-to-date with any relevant legislation and best practice guidelines and to ensure that your pack reflects this knowledge. Your pack should be written in accessible language and have a systematic guide to leaving a legacy. It should ‘sign post’ prospects to sources of further information and provide them with examples of well-written bequests.

Having expertise within the team is important, as prospects benefit from talking to a well-informed fundraiser. You might also want to develop links with legal professionals who can offer impartial advice to your prospects.


It may be several years before you realise the cash benefit of a legacy. During this time, you have the opportunity to deepen the relationship between your institution and the legator.

With appropriate stewarding, you can ensure that the legator feels good about his or her pledge and encourages others to make pledges. If you keep a legator informed about your institution’s projects, he might even be moved to increase his bequest or make a more immediate financial contribution.

Stewarding should involve regular communications about projects that a legacy might support, paying regular courtesy calls and visits to the legator and informing the legator about changes in the law and financial regulations that might affect her. Some institutions run ‘legacy clubs’ and hold regular events for legacy pledgers.

Have Systems in Place

Ideally, you want your legators to tell you about the legacies they have planned, as it will help you to plan. However, not everyone will choose to do so, and it is difficult to predict when those legacies you do know about will be realised. You need to have systems in place to deal with legacies as they are realised.

It is likely that you will have to deal with bereaved relatives or their representatives who simply want the estate to be settled as soon as possible. It is in everyone’s interests that you can respond quickly when accepting a legacy and complying with the legator’s requests.

In Memoriam

Related to legacies are ‘in memoriam’ gifts, which are given in memory of someone – perhaps a colleague, former tutor or alumni peer.

These are very personal appeals and often draw first-time donors to the institution. They require careful management of donor expectations and an open dialogue between the institution and the donor as to how the donation should be spent. If these gifts are poorly managed, the institution can run the risk of holding funds for a statue they did not want or having insufficient funds to meet the ambitious expectations of donors.

It is sensible to channel ‘in memoriam’ gifts into suitable appeal projects (e.g., scholarship programmes) and to have gift recognition policies to define the ways in which the subject of the ‘in memoriam’ gift can be recognised (e.g., a tree planted in a memorial wood, a plaque on a memorial wall or book plates in library books).

Action Item
  • Legacy programmes can be extremely beneficial for the institution’s mid- and long-term sustainability, but you need to be thoughtful in how you set them up. Consult with a legal professional and other institutions with successful programmes; partner with your finance and marketing departments; ensure materials are appropriate, policies in place, the appropriate fundraiser is leading the effort and a stewardship plan is in place.

You Might Also Want to Read:

Stewardship activities
Characteristics of a successful fundraiser
Partnering with other advancement-related departments
Gift accounting and reporting
Gift acceptance policies
Gift recognition policies


CASE provides articles and products about legacy and planned gifts to help your efforts.

Savant talks about legacies.