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The last great fundraising opportunity
The challenges, risks and rewards of bequest (legacy) marketing.


Archived opinions
Ken Burnett, writer, publisher and occasional fundraising consultant.

Archived article No 10
from Contributions magazine 2001.

Fundraisers, faced with public concern rising as fast as their cost-to-income ratios and an increasing number of traditional fundraising methods declining to the point of non-viability, have nevertheless proved beyond doubt that planned, carefully structured bequest marketing can really work  –  and at cost to income ratios that are to die for.

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Deep in the bowels of the splendidly imposing Somerset House on London’s Strand, WC1 there toils a small but singular band of men and women whose daily task it is (as it has been for the past century or more) to scrutinise the final wills and testaments of each and every recently deceased person in Britain, to find, register and analyse any charitable gifts bequeathed therein. This secretive band of scribes is noteworthy not just for their unique labours and output but because they are not part of the Government (though it is a government office staffed otherwise entirely by civil servants) but work for a remarkable commercial enterprise, the Smee and Ford Company of London, England.

Thanks to their endeavours, fundraisers in Britain have instant access to the most sophisticated data on charitable legacies (bequests) to be found anywhere in the world. Given that, in the UK, more than one-third of the value of all charitable donations comes in the form of bequests, this is a resource not to be sneezed at. Moreover, this vast sum is given by less than one in eight of all who depart this life. It follows that the 88 per cent or more who haven’t named a charity in their will remain potentially persuadable – provided fundraisers can get to them in time.

Dying to be a philanthropist?
Until he retired some years ago the chairman of Smee and Ford,  David Ford, was not only chairman of the board of the Institute of Fundraising (the UK equivalent of the AFP) he was also widely acknowledged as the UK’s godfather of bequest marketing, and from him I gained much of my knowledge of and enthusiasm for  this seemingly macabre but enthralling subject.

Smee and Ford is a company unique in this world and fundraisers everywhere should know of them, for they understand more of what motivates a charitable bequest than anyone. It was David who first showed me that really substantial bequests come from the most ordinary of folk and that through the simple device of a will almost anyone can be a major donor. But one thing David could never explain to me was why fundraisers generally are still such tardy, reluctant and ineffective promoters of the charitable bequest when – in times of increasing anxiety about ever-spiralling cost ratios – legacies and bequests bring in the most income for the lowest outlay.

For fundraisers, faced with public concern rising as fast as their cost-to-income ratios and an increasing number of traditional fundraising methods declining to the point of non-viability, have nevertheless proved beyond doubt that planned, carefully structured bequest marketing can really work  –  and at cost to income ratios that are to die for. Still each year the majority of fundraisers focus far more of their organisation’s limited resources on marginally economic short-term fundraising while neglecting the potential pot of gold that they could most easily access at lowest cost,  if they were only to pay more attention to bequest marketing. It seems obvious to the point of being silly, but it’s an omission almost universal among fundraisers and fundraising organisations everywhere.

The fundraiser’s holy grail
Despite the sceptics and the short-term thinkers I remain convinced that the real holy grail for fundraisers – the BIG breakthrough –  will be found when we discover a quick and effective way to successfully promote bequests.

I say quick because, fundraisers being the transient creatures they are, laying the foundations of a long-term bequest strategy seems just too long a wait for most. That’s why the obvious doesn’t happen. It’s a tragedy because, as I’ve said, in recent years we have accumulated experience and evidence which clearly shows that patient, careful bequest promotion does bring results. It’s sad also because finding a quick way to bequest riches will not be easy. Nor is it likely to happen soon. Most likely it will require entrepreneurial flair, commitment, willingness to take risks and acceptance that some failures will be inevitable before success is found. But the courage and commitment needed to realise this opportunity seem sadly absent among the current crop of fundraisers.

Fundraisers are remarkably conservative and unadventurous when it comes to promoting the concept of charitable bequests. Until very recently British charities have conspicuously failed to get together to promote the concept jointly (and thereby challenge and change our culture, our society’s attitude to the charitable bequest).

Although that’s hopefully to change now, thanks to an initiative from the afore-mentioned Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, there remains alarmingly limited creativity from fundraisers in the field of bequest promotion and a worrying reluctance to innovate, particularly if it involves any risk.

The prevailing atmosphere among British and other European not-for-profits these days is one of caution and conservatism. So where will the big breakthrough come from? Or indeed any breakthrough, come to that?

We shouldn’t forget that in bequest marketing even small breakthroughs can lead to big income. So perhaps fundraisers have a duty to be pioneers. After all, fortune favours the brave. No guts, no glory, and all that.

Some lessons learned
Here I’ll chip in a few views on what I consider to be worthwhile avenues that the more adventurous bequest marketer might explore. But first, after some years of studying bequest marketing around the world, there follows a summary of what I think I’ve learned for sure, thus far.
1. Direct selling of bequests is unlikely to work. Hard sell is simply not on. Fundraisers have to be very gentle and sensitive – donors should feel it’s a decision they have made themselves.
2. Bequests can be developed, but fundraisers have to be much more proscriptive than is the norm now. If we leave it solely to donors we’ll continue to collect bequests like manna from heaven but it’ll only ever be a small part of the potential. Sensitivity and relevance will be the watchwords here; we have to be subtle and very skilful.
3. Fundraisers should talk about bequests and what they achieve much more than they do. It’s a subject that can be made interesting and fundraisers can be genuinely helpful to their donors and prospective bequesters. So much bequest information is boring. You can’t bore a bequest out of anyone, but there are thousands willing to be inspired. Bequest marketing is much more about inspiration than it is about wills and codicils.
4. Fundraisers want residues and whole estates. But as donors live longer in an increasingly uncertain world they may be less willing to give what fundraisers want. So if future fundraisers are to succeed they should try to coincide with what the donors want and build from there, rather than insisting on asking for what best suits their own interests.
5. Every charity should have a bequest marketing strategy.
6. Every charity should have one named individual specifically responsible for bequest marketing.
7. There are many free and low cost ways to promote bequests.
8. There is more by far to learn than we have learned yet.

Pioneers wanted
If pioneering appeals to you, here’s some ideas that I think are worth trying.

1. Offer to be helpful. Provide a free bequest advice and information service. Make it easy and let your donors know about your service and how you can help them (not just with the bits that relate to a bequest to your cause). Get free publicity for your service via the money pages of local or even national newspapers, and similar media.
2. Don’t ask for everything. Ask your donors initially for just one per cent of their estate. Then when you have their commitment you can make a case for a larger percentage if that’s appropriate.
3. Do write to your donors about your organisation’s need for bequests. Most donors have not included a charity in their will because they have never been asked. There is plenty of experience now of sensitive and inoffensive direct mail which focuses on the subject of  bequests. And do ask for pledges. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many people are willing to tell you about their intentions. But be inventive. Don’t just follow the herd. Innovate.
4. Bequest marketing is an ethical minefield and we should develop the highest possible standards of practice. This is beginning to happen. There is a code of practice in Britain and inevitably there will be one in the USA too. Get it, and follow it.
5. British fundraisers, I have often said, could also take a leaf or two out of the books of our American cousins (that’s you!). Fundraisers in the USA and Canada are much more familiar with and better trained in face-to-face promotion of bequests, which is a comparatively new area for British fundraisers. We should invest in it, run special training courses in it, feature it at the ICFM Convention and so on. But curiously I find too many Americans fail to realise that the bequest is generally the most lucrative form of planned giving, and the least painful for the donor too.
6. Perhaps we should be equally committed to testing the telephone. Certainly new approaches should be devised and tried and serious training should be given. However I remain sceptical about employing third parties in the task and fear confusion, if not abuse, would arise too often were fundraisers to attempt any large-scale solicitation of older donors by phone. 
7. At last the British have introduced worthwhile tax incentives to encourage philanthropy, so again we can emulate our transatlantic friends and develop financial products and propositions that link in to older donors’ need for and interest in things financial. There’s real scope for ingenuity here, and the development of genuinely useful services too.

Continued column two –>




Now more than a decade since it first appeared this article really was an appeal for creative, entrepreneurial investment in legacy marketing. I'm not sure it’s an appeal that was widely heard, though I think the main points are still valid. Perhaps the commitment is still lacking...

Click the image above to connect to SOFII for examples of legacy marketing materials from around the world. The collection is still a work in progress so do please submit your examples of great legacy marketing materials.

An intriguing legacy offer from Save the Children. The message still applies to legacy fundraisers.


Patient, careful bequest promotion does bring results... it will require entrepreneurial flair, commitment, willingness to take risks and acceptance that some failures will be inevitable before success is found. But the courage and commitment needed to realise this opportunity seem sadly absent among the current crop of fundraisers..


Continues from bottom of column 1

8. Bequest help-desks, regional will-making clinics, financial planning workshops, videos of bequest achievements (where a researcher talks about the leading-edge work he is doing, an aid worker shows the innovative agricultural scheme, and so on and so on, all possible thanks to bequests), major donor societies, posters, beer-mats, letter-headings, t-shirts, … the possibilities for creative presentation of the bequest message are limited only by our own commitment, resourcefulness and imagination.

Uneasy rider
Not-for-profits, it has to be said, too seldomly devote adequately resources to research and development. Investment in new product design and testing is usually minimal or non-existent in charities. So as we have done for very many years now, perhaps it is not a bad strategy to sit back and wait for bequests to fall into our laps, like the proverbial manna.

Some fundraisers clearly are wedded to this way of working with bequests. But you could change all that, and through adventurous bequest marketing give your organisation a head start on its rivals – even if it gets you only 15 minutes ahead. In these competitive times, that could be all you need.

I think it’s a great opportunity – but I worry whether it will happen.

When I first drafted this article I was in the habit of undertaking a rather unusual commute between my home in north west France and my London office, a distance excluding the channel crossing of 175 miles. If the weather seemed inclined to be reasonable I made this trip on my motorcycle, which I found both enjoyable and productive, as it affords me ample time to ponder both the meaning of life and the big issues of fundraising. As I raced through the French countryside or rocketed along the A3 from London to Portsmouth I often found myself regretting what seems to me to be the biggest missed opportunity in fundraising – we fundraisers have somehow failed our causes and our publics, because we have failed to encourage most people to appreciate the enormous advantages of leaving a charitable bequest in their will.

Almost everyone would like to be a philanthropist and through our wills each and every one of us could be. Most people could easily and painlessly afford a charitable bequest without in any way compromising the interests of their heirs. And most would feel rather good about it if they did. Yet, although everyone knows they can’t take their worldly goods with them, as few as one in eight of our population have seen this light and, at the time of their death, will have left anything at all to their favourite charitable cause, their Alma Mater, their local community, or whatever.

I repeat, it seems to me that we fundraisers have failed our organisations and our supporters. There is so much more we could be doing to promote the tangible and intangible benefits of leaving a charitable legacy, or bequest.

© Ken Burnett 2013

This article has been adapted from a feature that first appeared in the US journal Contributions magazine in 2001.



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lineKen Burnett is co-founder of Clayton Burnett Limited and a director of The White Lion Press Limited. He was chairman of the board of trustees of the international development charityActionAid from 1998 to 2003. Ken is author of several books including Relationship Fundraising and The Zen of Fundraising and is managing trustee of SOFII, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. For more on Ken’s books please click here.
The Inch Hotel, Loch Ness, inspirational setting for Clayton Burnett’s transformational events. We have wisdom circles here, but not formally.