Looking to Legacies – unlocking untapped potential across higher education

by Anna Wall, Rosie Dale and Simon O'Leary - 11 September 2023


Following the launch of the CASE-More UK Philanthropy Report, we are pleased to bring you the second in our series of blogs exploring topics emerging from the report’s findings and recommendations.

Today, our focus is on legacies, which currently generate around 25% of all income given to higher education by individuals. And while 2022 was a record year for legacy donations in the UK, the report highlights this income stream as an area of untapped potential across higher education.

To explore this with us are Anna Wall, Head of Regular Giving and Legacy Giving at Imperial College London, and More Partners Rosie Dale and Simon O’Leary, who bring legacy expertise from across the higher education and charity sector.

The report is clear that there is urgency around the need to unlock legacy potential.
Why is this?

Rosie: By 2030, legacy income to charity in the UK is expected to top £5bn a year. We are witnessing the biggest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history and that could be transformational for higher education.

Anna: Legacy giving is influenced by evolving societal norms. The generosity of today’s baby boomers is quite unique due to their affluence and experience of higher education. That might not be the same for future generations, so it genuinely feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Research suggests that 35% of over-40s would consider giving a gift to charity in their will but only 6% do, so there’s a lot of room for growth.

Rosie: Another notable trend in legacy giving is the dominance of women. Today's baby boomer women, among the first to experience higher education, have a unique chance to create significant impact through legacies.

Why do you think the sector hasn’t acted more quickly to take this opportunity?

Anna: I’ve thought hard about this. First and foremost, there is a prevailing focus on short-term income gains. KPIs for major gift and principal gift fundraisers just don’t incentivise legacy conversations, even though we hear from many fundraisers that they want to talk about them. The assumption that it’ll take a long time for income to materialise means it’s not always a focus for leadership or can be seen as a risk.

Rosie: In my experience, there’s also a perceived lack of control around legacies and concern they may not match up with shorter-term campaign priorities. But legacies can bring in broadly unrestricted income towards long-term thematic areas. It all comes down to the right proposition and the right relationships internally and with donors.

Anna: I also think there’s a perception that donors don’t want to talk about end of life. But my experience couldn’t be further from that. One woman told me her legacy gift would be her “lottery win” – the chance to do wonderful things. We’re seeing trends at Imperial of legacy giving towards climate change and new approaches to energy storage. People want to leave gifts that’ll really change the future. But if we don’t act now to communicate this opportunity, then everyone misses out.

Legacy income accounts for 15-25% of all cash income from individuals in UK higher education. For charities, legacies are often the single biggest source of income at 30-40%. What can higher education learn from strong charity legacy programmes?

Simon: I would say there are four key elements to successful charity legacy programmes:

1. It’s an organisational priority. All staff understand that legacies are key to organisational success and failure.

2. All supporter-facing staff have the knowledge and confidence to talk about legacies.

3. There is bravery to invest for the long-term. This means financial modelling for expenditure and investment beyond the regular one or three-year planning cycles.

4. Staff are genuinely excited about working in legacy giving; it’s an area with distinct technical skills, professionalism and captivating stories.

At Cancer Research UK, so many of the staff understood the importance of legacies that it became just another thing to talk to supporters about.

Anna: There’s plenty that higher education can learn from this approach. I see myself as a fundraiser – I’m there to build relationships and listen to a donor, however they plan to give. The leadership piece is also important and can make a huge difference. Many peers I speak to feel they’re pushing from the bottom up and that can be a lonely and demotivating place.

Rosie: There is such a stark cultural difference between higher education and charities at the moment. In higher education, the priority tends to be major gifts. In charities, it’s legacies. It doesn’t need to be either/or – both can flourish with the right skills, culture and leadership in place.

Simon: Many charities also show real organisational maturity around legacies. They worry less about when the gift arrives but more about the quality and value of the pipeline. At Cancer Research UK, the legacy pipeline was celebrated more than in-year legacy income because leaders recognised its importance. With strong analysis and scenario modelling, you can de-risk uncertainty around legacies.

Anna, tell us more about how you’ve transformed the legacy giving programme at Imperial.

Anna: In 2015, Imperial had the foresight to establish a formal legacy programme. The game-changers for me were considerable budget, autonomy to shape the programme, and direct access to the regular giving programme. I knew the main leads for our legacy pipeline wouldn’t come from prospect research – the volume was just too small.

Despite fears of the impact of legacy messaging on the regular giving programme, it only strengthened the performance of both. We swiftly realised that the two audiences were the same. With help from Rosie and Adrian at More Partnership, we massively improved our messaging, proposition, audience journey and stewardship. As a result, we had our best year yet in regular giving income last year and legacy income has grown by 500% from £1m to £6m a year over the past 5-7 years. We also have expert copywriting support from Ben and Jo at More, so our audiences hear the same high-quality and consistent message. It’s not been an easy journey, but it’s been a privilege to be part of something so exciting.

The CASE-More UK Philanthropy Report shows a lag in workforce growth in higher education fundraising. How does dedicated legacy resource fit into team structures and work alongside other programmes?

Anna: I was lucky at Imperial to have two successive advancement leaders supportive of legacy giving. Once income started to come in, I could make the case for more staff. The team includes a Legacy Officer, Legacy and RG Manager, and a dedicated Mid-Value Officer promoting legacies. Demand could keep several more people promoting legacies and dealing with the existing pipeline of legacy enquirers – we definitely haven’t fully tapped into our pipeline yet.

Simon: As well as dedicated legacy fundraisers, the development services, finance and legal teams also need to understand their responsibility and be ready. Without that, you end up with specialist legacy teams focusing internally rather than building donor relationships.

A recommendation of the report is the development of long-term propositions that appeal to legators. What does a strong legacy proposition look like for higher education?

Anna: The charity sector is great at this. Propositions are simple, clear and compelling. Where we struggle is the breadth of causes we contribute to. Legators with specific interests are actually easier to manage. The question ‘I want to leave a gift to Imperial in my will, what can I do?’ is one of the hardest to answer. At Imperial, we have three broad themes for our proposition: groundbreaking research; changing students’ lives; and tackling global challenges that will change the future for everyone. We use those to guide our conversations with potential legacy pledgers.

Rosie:The sector needs to get better at developing propositions for longer-term broadly unrestricted needs, as well as externally communicating the impact that legacies at all levels can make to higher education.

Simon: Sometimes you have to be creative to find the right proposition. At the Royal British Legion, we aimed to adopt plastic-free poppies. An estate in our pipeline wanted involvement, offering an upfront donation for research. Upon certification, they then left a six-figure legacy for the transition to the plastic free poppy for the 2023 Appeal. This example illustrates the power of creative thinking that satisfies the organisation's goals and the legacy giver's wishes. That’s the real sweet spot.

What would your advice be to others in higher education considering growing their legacy work?

Anna: Be open to learning, be confident taking risks, review your metrics, and celebrate legacies. Don’t be afraid to put numbers against legacies either. Average legacy gifts in higher education are higher than the charity sector but there is lots of benchmark data out there to help you.

Simon: Don’t believe the urban myths. Be brave, be confident, test and build an evidence-based approach and the income will come.

Rosie: Ask yourselves what you can do to improve legacy giving at your institution and act on it now. The opportunity is huge – we just need to seize it.