Legacy and major donors

There are over 169,000 charities in the UK, all looking for funding. Of the four largest sources of funding in the UK, all have decreased, except for legacy donations, and yet legacy (and major donors) are often ignored by charities.

Trust and Confidence

With charities all over the media in recent years for aggressive fundraising practices, dubious partnerships and lack of transparency  (Kids Company, Save the Children, Age UK etc.), there has been a huge drop in confidence in charities. However, small local charities are bucking this trend and still retain high levels of trust amongst their communities.

The Board’s Role in Fundraising

  • It is the Board that is legally responsible for a charity’s fundraising – all of the Board;
  • The Board must act in the best interests of the charity;
  • The Board must manage the charity’s resources responsibly, which, importantly, includes advocating on behalf of the charity at all times and protecting and safeguarding its reputation by ensuring high standards of integrity, accountability and transparency;
  • The Board acts with reasonable care and skill, and asks for and acts on expert advice when required.

As an absolute minimum, Trustees should:

  • Agree the charity’s overall approach to generating income;
  • Put in place an effective fundraising strategy;
  • Ensure that adequate resources are in place to enable the charity to meet its fundraising goals.

Major Donors

In a simple sentence – you must know exactly how much you are going to ask for, be able to explain what and who the donation will benefit, and what will happen without it.

The most important factors in developing a major donor strategy are:

  • Really thorough preparation is key. Decide what level of donation makes a major donor for. Put a simple process in place so that you know when and who will respond to major donations. You might decide that at £500 it will be your fundraiser or fundraising volunteer and £5000 or over it will be the Chief Executive/Director or the Chair of Trustees.

It is essential to keep up to date records of ALL contacts with major donors. This is especially important if different people are in touch with the donor. Underline how important this is with staff and volunteers, and ensure everyone – including Trustees – are aware of the process you have in place, and that they stick to it.

  • Identify who your major donors could be. This will take some time and research. Look at your existing supporters and see if you think any of them could step up to a higher level of giving. Think about your wider networks, including previous supporters, trustees’ contacts, local dignitaries, trustees themselves etc…

Other useful sources of information to help you identify major donors can be: 

Local media– local newspaper and radio;

Networks – a key part of a Trustee’s role is advocating for the museum, and growing the museum’s network of supporters;

Rich lists- it’s relatively simple to find out who the wealthiest people are in Cornwall;

Events – who regularly attends and may give small cash donations each time? Could you organise an event aimed at major donor opportunities? 

  • Do your research. Find out as much as you can about a potential donor – their interests, hobbies, businesses, and how your cause might connect with them. You want to ensure when you do approach them you offer something that will make a lasting partnership rather than just asking them for money.

This must be done ethically and comply with all legal requirements and best practice guidance.

  • It’s all about building relationships. As you find out more about the donor, you will be able to identify the best way to approach them. Shared contacts are the most effective way to make the initial approach, even a small charity has a network of friends, volunteers, family and colleagues. You should listen carefully to what they’re saying, and create a specific proposal that meets their needs as well as the goal of the organisation.
  • Allow plenty of time, building a really good relationship with a major donor takes time, but is valuable. Keep them involved, don’t always ask for money, make them feel valued and a part of the success of the organisation. And always, always say thank you. This can take time, between 18-24 months, It is important not to underestimate the time this can take, especially when including major donors as part of a fundraising strategy. Adequate time and resources must be allowed for.
  • Make the ask. You should have a good idea what your donor will want to support by now. Tell them what they will be funding, and what their donation would mean and what will happen without it. This is your ‘Case for Support’, and it’s important that everyone within the organisation understands it and uses it. Remember that you should ask for an amount appropriate to that person’s ability to donate.
  • As mentioned above, keep in touch. Whether your prospect makes a gift or not, keep in touch with them and keep them involved. If they have funded part of your work they will want to know how it is going and what difference their money is making. If they didn’t give, there may be another opportunity in future that they are more interested in. All your communications should be geared towards building your major donor’s understanding of the organisation. With knowledge and understanding comes empathy and commitment, and a long term mutually beneficial relationship.

Your Case for Support

  • What makes your organisation different?
  • What needs are you trying to meet?
  • What impact are you making?
  • How will you use the funds?
  • How will the funds specifically benefit your stakeholders?
  • In other words what great things will happen?

Make it compelling, personal and inspirational. Remember, trust is essential, so your organisation needs to make sure that its governance and processes are prepared for the scrutiny that will come.


You must ensure full compliance with all regulatory and statutory obligations and follow best practice guidance at all times. All Trustees and Senior Management must be aware of any changes to regulations, Trustees are responsible for ensuring that their organisation complies with these. There are some excellent sources of information:

  • Fundraising Preference Service (consent to be asked for money)
  • GDPR – EU General Data Protection Regulations (what info you capture)
  • Fundraising Regulator to ensure you follow best practice
  • Charity Commission
  • Institute of Fundraising 

Legacy Giving 

There’s a view amongst charities that legacy giving is a horrible subject to tackle. The fact is that it couldn’t be further from the truth, it is a ‘joyful act which is life driven and only death activated’ – Richard Radcliffe, Legacy Innovation.

Legacies in the UK have increased from £1,743,599,454.00 to 1,745 organisations in 2007 to £2,202,639,251.00 in 2013 (www.charityfinancials.com). The profile of donors is also changing, it encompasses most age groups, and with this comes an increasing need to demonstrate your value and effectiveness, and to tell your museum’s story in an engaging way.

There are four key steps to take, all of which involve careful planning and a tactful approach:

Understand the psychology of legacy

People don’t like to talk about death. It’s a depressing and difficult topic.

In 2010, the NSPCC came up with a high-profile legacies advert that paved the way for a new approach – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8tZWXeCkIk

It a great example of a legacies ‘ask’, because:

  1. It takes the emphasis away from dying, and focuses on living;
  2. It nurtures people’s desire to leave not just a financial, but also a social legacy;
  3. It concentrates on the relationships that really matter to us: family, friends, loved ones.
  4. It uses a combination of cheerful and warm music and imagery to make us feel good about what we’re doing.

If you wish to run a successful legacies campaign – that’s the psychology you need to follow.

You also need to think about the language you use. Very few effective legacy campaigns use the word legacy on their websites. Think about the words your supporters and volunteers use and focus on these.

Consistent messaging

You don’t want to leave it until the moment of crisis to ask – that’s unhelpful and ineffective. Ideally, you want people to be aware of your legacies programme well in advance. People tend to write or update their wills at significant milestones in their lives (marriage, birth of children, retirement and illness). Think about how you can incorporate awareness of this into your marketing and promotions.

Make your members/volunteers/supporters/visitors aware that the option is there,  let them know how it will help, and make it look like an attractive and useful thing to do.

You will need a well-thought strategy and campaign. You might want to think about using a combination of the following, but, above all, focus on a clear and consistent message, and quality over quantity:

Research – talk to people who have expressed an interest in leaving a legacy. What were their reasons? What is it about your organisation that would make people want to leave a legacy? Many charities ask people who have included them in their wills to let them know when they do, and why. Their testimony can add a very real, human touch to your campaign, as well as helping you learn the most effective way of developing your campaign. Remember – people give to people! 

Keep in touch – events, not as strange as you might think. A well planned legacy event should be fun and inspirational. Remember: some people may not be able to come to events, so what’s the best way of keeping in touch with them and making them feel involved? That can involve personal letters or phone calls.

Video – Video production, with the advent of digital, is far easier and more cost effective than you might think. If you have a volunteer with a camcorder, a bit of creativity and some initiative, it’s perfectly possible to put a good advert together and post it on your website, YouTube and social media sites. Carefully script beforehand so that your message reflects the rest of your campaign, think carefully about the background, sound etc…

Writing – Articles in your newsletter, on your website, in local newspapers. Tell stories about what legacies have achieved for your organisation.

Pick a message, make it consistent, and keep it in the public eye.

Website – Make sure legacy fundraising is included on your website. Usually in the donate section and can be called something like ‘remember us in your will’. Look at how other charities are writing about legacy giving online for some good ideas. Get the balance right between giving information which helps your supporters include you in their will and persuading them to do this in the first place. The value of a legacy gift can be significant so it is worth investing time in getting your web pages right.

A Legacy Pack – As with any form of fundraising – it’s not just about telling people that you need the money, it’s about explaining why, showing them the brilliant things you could do with that money, and it’s about making it easy for them to give you the money.

Once someone decides to leave you a legacy – how do they do it? This process needs to be as simple and streamlined as possible, ideally with one person leading on it at the museum.

Make sure that you’ve created a professional legacies pack that people can request, and that holds all the information they need, but is simple and straightforward. Get some advice from a solicitor at this stage as they’ll be able to advise on what will be required.

Pop a pack in the newsletter when you launch your legacies scheme and make it available to download from your website. Make sure you are up to date with the laws surrounding legacy giving.

Follow up and transparency

It’s essential, when dealing with legacies, that your accounting process is completely transparent. Often, small donations will be swallowed into core running costs of the organisation. However, people may bequeath to specific projects or functions within an organisation. It’s essential that the wishes of the donor are carried out, and you must be able to show this in your accounting.

You should keep track of legacy income, so that you can monitor it over time to see whether your awareness campaigns are effective and if you are getting a valuable return on your investment of time and resource. Legacies take several years to show a return, but after that they should, like all fundraising strategies, be reviewed yearly to ensure they remain relevant and effective.