Finding a way in your will

by Stephen Tall on October 21, 2009

So, on Sunday morning I sat down to write my will. I should have done so seven years ago, when I first took out a mortgage and gained a foothold on the property ladder. But I put it off, and put it off. I was eventually prompted by the belated realisation that – were anything to happen to me – I’d be leaving my girlfriend homeless.

Why did I put it off? Well, not because I’m utterly incapable of contemplating my own mortality. Folk sometimes die young: it’s tragic, but it happens: I can deal. No, I was put off for two reasons. First, and probably most common, the general lethargy of arranging my personal administration. But, secondly, maybe less common – I wanted to include legacy gifts to charity within my will, and have been unsure how best to go about doing this, and which charities I should remember.

It’s odd to find myself on this side of the charity fence. In my decade in fundraising, I’ve written legacy brochures, organised legacy events, initiated a legacy recognition society (and, yes, I know how ugly a term that is), talked to donors about their legacies, and handled hundreds of pledged legacy gifts and dozens of received legacy gifts totalling millions of pounds. So, professionally, speaking I know my legacy giving stuff. Except when it comes to me making a legacy gift, it seems.

Why so difficult? Well, two factors, both inter-related:

1) My current ‘estate’ is not large – I’m only 32 – and my girlfriend would inherit the vast bulk of the residuary estate in addition to my equity in the house if I keeled over tomorrow. The amount of my residuary estate which I’ve assigned to charity – 15% – would not be large in cash terms. I don’t want to remember just one charity, so the actual amount each would share would be pretty small, perhaps a low four-figure amount, maybe less. The question arises, then: what difference would a small gift actually make?

2) I like to think I’m quite focused in terms of my lifetime charitable giving. I give regularly, by direct debit and with Gift Aid, to some half a dozen good causes – a mix of educational, medical and political institutions. I generally favour aspirational charities (ie, those trying to make the world a better place) over humanitarian charities (ie, those trying to stop it getting worse) – though chip in one-off gifts for emergency appeals, Comic Relief, sponsorship of friends/colleagues, etc. This is especially the case for my legacy giving, where I feel I want to make some kind of statement – admittedly within my meagre resources – about the kind of world I’d like to leave behind. And that’s quite a big thing to think about.

Which is why I put it off for seven years.

But the deed is now done, and I feel better for having done it. In the end I remembered three causes to benefit from my 15%, two of them educational, one political. I was actually quite surprised by my own choices; one of them I’d previously decided not to include in my will; another I don’t currently give to at all. No, I’m not going to name them, but they all met the following four criteria:

1) I believe in what they’re doing;
2) I know they need the money, and even small gifts are valued;
3) I’ve been involved with them personally, seen how they work from the inside, and I trust the management;
4) I know they will use the gift directly in a way in which I’d approve without being asked.

I don’t know, but I imagine my criteria are pretty important for most people when thinking of which charities to include in their will. The challenge for fundraisers, then, is simple: demonstrate to folk like me that your institution could pass each of my criteria with flying colours.