How to solve a problem like legacy giving?

This weekend, legacy giving – and namely Oxfam – enjoyed a significant boost in the form of a deceased donor’s generous (if unusual) posthumous gift; a gambling bet on the success of tennis champ Roger Federer, bequeathed to the charity.

Sadly, Nicholas Newlife did not live to see his wager that Federer would win a 7th Wimbledon men’s final before 2020 come good; but Oxfam today collected his winnings of £101,840. Widely shared on Twitter during the live Wimbledon final against Andy Murray on Sunday, the ‘sad story turned good’ of Mr Newlife’s charitable bet went viral – and also made traditional media take note, including BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

I was a little disappointed in Oxfam’s response as reported in Civil Society (but in fairness this could have been the editorial as opposed to charity ingratitude), commenting that the huge legacy may have warranted a larger, special recognition:

“I know that project-restricting £100k in a charity’s terms is crazy, but – if only for PR purposes – it might have been nice to have given a more personal comment. E.g. that ‘the money will go into a fund in Mr Newlife’s memory, and the charity will endeavour to spend the money on projects that he would have had specific passion for…'”

Fundraiser Dawn Varley called me out on it:

Whilst my intention wasn’t to be disrespectful (rather the opposite), my devil’s advocate comments sparked a short but interesting discussion on a) how legacy giving might better position itself, b) the public trust in charities’ spending, and c) how we (charities) articulate vital unrestricted funds in a tangible way.

Dawn went on to suggest it “would be good if ‪Oxfam‬ used this as a case study for what a legacy can achieve, including important core costs elements.” (kind of what I was getting at but she spelled it out more clearly!).

Director of legacy-giving non-profit, Remember a Charity, Rob Cope added its big barriers are: a) charities’ failure to communicate that family should come first (he adds that 19% of UK givers say they would leave a legacy, but if positioned as any gift should come after loved ones in a will, this figure jumps to 35%), b) the fallacy that legacy giving is ‘only for the wealthy’, and c) its ‘lack of salience’.

And Footsteps Fund Manager at Leeds University, Adrian Salmon, suggested that Oxfam might invite the tennis champ to a project to see what his win would fund – an excellent idea that, as fundraiser Jess Leigh pointed out, would help dispel the myth that unrestricted funds are somehow unworthy or ‘bad’ (but in fact a charities’ achievements are the sum of its parts – salaries and all).

I think Nicholas Newlife’s legacy – a sporting bet to be played out beyond his own death – is brilliant. As Civil Society reports, the charity “still stands to make up to £200,000 more from bets placed by Newlife on tennis player Andy Roddick and cricketer Ramnaresh Sarwan”. I love that.

I really hope that his story does serve (oh my god, I promise that was not a tennis pun) to capture the public’s imagination around legacy-giving. But most of all I hope it re-sparks charities’ efforts to communicate ‘unrestricted funds’ as meaningful, vital and tangible. We are storytellers above all else. As a donor (and potential legacy-leaver) I still want to be told how important my gift will be, and the impact it will make.

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