How to talk about charities and legacies

IMG_0006Charities once again find themselves on the front page of a broadsheet newspaper today, this time in relation to the practice of legacy fundraising – or as the headline put it, ‘Charities cash in on relatives of the dead’.

It’s tempting to think that this is just a story about charities that receive legacy income, but as ever, this is something that all of us connected with charities should be prepared to talk about if asked. So, things you might talk about in a conversation on charities and legacies:


1. People choose to leave gifts to the charities they love in their wills.

legaciesLeaving a legacy isn’t for everyone, but for some people it’s an important part of planning their estate; after all, charities exist for the public benefit, and some people want as part of their legacy that public benefit.

So, it’s wrong to talk of cashing in on relatives; charities can only take what someone has agreed to give them.


2. Charities have to ask for the gifts that have been left to them.

It might seem wrong that charities ask the executors of a will, whether they’re professionals or the family, for payment of the amount that has been left to the charity.

But under charity law, trustees have a duty to do this. So then the question is more of an issue of how people are asked – and all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that this is done with respect and empathy.

3. It’s right that charities use an agency to notify them of bequests.

In the news this has been caricatured as a bit grubby – the idea that an agency searches through probate records and ‘tips off’ charities, charging them for the service. In reality, the service is useful to charities and the executors who are charged with implementing the wishes of the deceased.

It would be inefficient, impractical and costly for every charity to undertake a weekly review of all new probate records and charities are not informed of any gifts in wills as a matter of course. And again, it’s a service that is carried out with respect and empathy.

4. Leaving a bequest helps charities to make a difference to the cause you care about.

There are so many charities for whom legacy income helps to make a bigger difference to the causes they work on. Cancer Research UK, for example, estimates that one third of its life saving research is funded by legacies. Society thinks that leaving a legacy is a good thing too, so the exchequer will treat your estate favourably in response.

5. A very British problem…

Most Brits don’t like talking about money or death. Being open with family about a will is an important part of addressing this issue. Charities are also passionate about ensuring that donor’s loved ones should come first when writing a will.

‘Family first, charity second’, is the message that most charities use – again, contrary to what newspaper reports might lead you to believe. Charities are not competing with the donor’s family, but simply recognising that a small gift to the donor’s favourite causes can make a big difference. So charities aren’t in the business of them and us, they’re holding  conversations about ‘and’.

Finally, if it’s the case that you do find yourself in a conversation about charities and legacies, you could do worse than direct people towards Remember a Charity, where they can find out information to help them make up their own mind.


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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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