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Lawyers very influential in promoting legacy giving

20 October 2016

The way a lawyer talks to a client about including a charitable legacy in a will is a very important influencer, according to research released in England. New Zealand charity organisations believe the same principles will apply here.

A two-year study in England between November 2014 and June 2016 by the Behavioural Insights Team and the University of Bristol has explored the most appropriate and effective ways for solicitors to make their clients aware of the option of donating through their will in a face-to-face setting.

The Legacy Giving and Behavioural Insights Report is based on trials involving eight firms of solicitors and over 2,600 client interactions across the United Kingdom.

The researchers have found that people's likelihood of including a charity in their will is affected by the language legal professionals use. They conclude that how solicitors raise the charitable option can play a major role in legacy giving.

Among the report findings:

  • Lawyers felt able to rise the issue of leaving money to charity in discussions with their clients comfortably and appropriately.
  • Clients who were told that many people bequest money to charity in their wills were 40% more likely to do so themselves when writing their first will.
  • Clients with families may be more inclined to leave a legacy when asked if they wanted to leave to charities that their family had previously supported or benefitted from.

Surveys conducted as part of the research found that 46% of respondents said that solicitors have a duty to ask clients about legacy giving. The researchers note that this suggests that lawyers do not need to avoid charitable bequests in general as a potentially sensitive topic.

Types of language

The researchers say there were three types of language used to discuss bequests: social norm framing, emotional framing, and posthumous benefit framing.

Social norm framing involved telling people that charitable bequests are something that other people do. This was the most effective message frame, but its effectiveness depended on client circumstances. It worked well for clients writing their wills for the first time - when told that the others had given, this group went on to donate 40% more than people not told this information.

However, the researchers say this type of message discouraged giving among people who were revising existing wills. "Despite these mixed findings, most people in our survey had a favourable view of these social norm prompts."

Emotional framing asked clients to think about charities that they or their families care about or have benefitted from. This was the only type of messaging which increased donations from clients both with and without children.

Posthumous benefit framing involved the will writer referring to the good work that would result from a charitable bequest. This had a consistently negative effect compared to other types of messaging. The survey confirmed that people felt this language was the least acceptable of the three message frames.

The UK legacy market

The organisation Remember a Charity says income from gifts in wills is worth more than £2 billion a year to charities in the UK. However, it says there is evidence of a disconnect between people’s intentions to give money in their wills, and those doing so. Research shows that 35% of those surveyed wanted to leave money to charity in their will, but only 6.3% do.

The NZ legacy market

The situation in New Zealand is very similar. Bequests are also important to New Zealand's charities. Information from Charities Services on the latest annual returns submitted shows organisations registered as charities received bequests valued at $192 million. For many of these, bequests are a very important source of income.

The Include a Charity organisation is an initiative in which 68 charities have joined to try to increase the number of New Zealanders who include charities in their will. It says fewer than 8% of New Zealanders give to charity in their will. One of its main initiatives is an annual "Include a Charity Week".

Communications and Campaign Manager Eleanor Cater says lawyers are very important in her organisation's thinking, and the English research reinforces already-held perceptions.

"It's interesting research and good to have something very recent which backs up what we know; lawyers are the key to that really crucial conversation which could help to change New Zealand’s future. Interesting to see some new research into the most effective way to frame that conversation as well," she says.

"By improving understanding of how to raise this important question, solicitors will be better equipped to assist clients in drafting a will that properly reflects their wishes. Those magic words 'have you considered including a charity in your will?', and normalising the idea as something that others do, really does have the power to influence a change for good."

Ms Cater says its encouraging that many New Zealand lawyers have a real heart for doing social good by bringing charitable bequests to their clients' attention.

"Let's not forget that for many clients giving feels great, it can be very rewarding, and assisting in that process can be a rewarding process for lawyers too. It's a real win/win/win for clients, lawyers and charities."

Last updated on the 21st October 2016