When is a legacy program sustainably successful? As fundraisers, we are understandably focused on KPIs, break-even and ROI. So when I started building a legacy programme, my focus was on lead acquisition and identifying pledgers. Whilst the programme was in its infancy, I wanted to get a grip on the visibility of results and, of equal significance, ensure those results were communicated to management promptly and accurately.
The marketing side of our job, where strong communication inspires people to leave a gift in their will to our organisations, is hugely significant but is only half of the picture. Laser focus on results and reporting can distract you from the other part of our work – stewardship.
What is stewardship?
Stewardship describes the discipline of building and maintaining relationships with supporters in a structured manner. It’s important to note that this does not only apply to individuals but should also be seen at an organisationally strategic level. A successful stewardship programme is a carefully planned series of communication and engagement choices that gradually bind groups of supporters and donors to your organisation for a long time to inspire them to give a gift in their will.
Stewardship within legacy programmes
An important part of our work as legacy fundraisers starts once we identify people (referred to as leads, prospects, hand-raisers) who are open to eventually leaving a gift in their will. The challenge with legacy fundraising is that people often need time to take action to include a charity in their will, in many cases resulting in years before an organisation will receive this gift. During these years, a lot can happen in the life of a (potential) pledger, and as an organisation, we have to stay on top of their mind. However, the time that passes is a golden opportunity – it is our chance to show the impact the charity, and therefore the supporter, can make and that we turn our promises into reality. It is about what all relationships are about – trust.
The importance of stewardship
We often underestimate the importance of stewardship. Perhaps because the way we measure the impact is harder to quantify. But we can do something about this. We can also attach KPIs to stewardship. Which actions within a stewardship programme work and which are appreciated? How many legacy prospects eventually become pledgers and then actually leave a gift in their will? Is there a difference in gift value between known legators compared to unknown legators? There are great chances to develop our legacy programmes by gaining more information and knowledge about effective stewardship.
In addition, it is important to provide internal feedback and insight on the personal contact we have with (potential) pledgers. Some pledgers want contact with organisations. Some have questions or opinions about how we do our work. These are crucial moments in the donor relationship. As an organisation, you have to take prospects and pledgers seriously, listen carefully and build trust. Not all organisations have a relationship manager for their legacy programmes, but I know from experience that personal contact can make a significant difference for some prospects and pledgers. A difference that can literally be worth millions. As a relationship manager, it’s important to show the result of your work and provide feedback internally, for example, by keeping track of contact moments in a dashboard and regularly reporting to senior management.
Supporters have different needs
“Many pledgers don’t let organisations know that they are leaving a gift and also don’t want special treatment.” “Organisations that do not invest in stewardship also receive legacies.” I still hear this arguments for not investing in stewardship or legacy fundraising. The explanation for this is simply that not everyone needs contact. But be careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly because there are different groups of supporters with different needs. Some people make their own decisions and don’t want any help or contact. Other people don’t know that leaving a legacy is even possible or how it could be done and simply want information or additional confirmation through personal contact. Supporters, donors, and pledgers are all different. Just because your organisation receives legacies from people who arranged it all alone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in legacy fundraising and stewardship.
Research is also showing the importance of stewardship in legacy fundraising. Legacy Foresight released a very insightful analysis on legacy stewardship in the UK. A well-functioning stewardship programme leads to (potential) pledgers that are more involved, more loyal, and feel more valued. Satisfied pledgers share their good experiences with family and friends and can even become ambassadors.
A sustainably successful legacy programme combines fundraising with stewardship. If you only focus on marketing within your legacy programme and invest your budget and capacity only in lead acquisition, your investments can quickly evaporate. Through stewardship, you cultivate the legacy leads that you have recruited. A successful legacy programme always stands on two legs: marketing and stewardship.
 The term stewardship is less often used in non-English speaking countries. For example, in the Netherlands, we often talk about relationship management. But, ultimately, there are many terms that you could also use, like; supporter care or relationship building, etc.
 I always find this perspective remarkable because, alongside other forms of fundraising, we receive donations out of the blue, and we still invest in that fundraising. For example, look at major donor fundraising. Charities receive large spontaneous gifts without having built any relationships. For many organisations, major donor stewardship is much more self-evident than legacy stewardship. For me, a foolish decision, mainly because the income from legacies is often higher than that of major donors. It is high time to invest more budget and, above all, capacity in legacy fundraising and stewardship.
 Legacy Foresight: Legacy Briefing, Understanding Legacy Stewardship, March 2019
Lena Vizy 2022