Traveling the paths of the past – and the role of legacy fundraising

by Lynne Boardman on November 10th, 2023

My brothers and I watch and listen as, more and more, our mother spends her waking time travelling the paths of her past.

Childhood memories pop into many of our conversations. Today, she told me about the man who lived up the road from her childhood home. He used to lend her mother his large pickling barrel, “…a lovely man, really, although he never said a sentence that didn’t have a curse word in it.” As a fan of story-telling, I love this. But I know that many people find it worrisome when the seniors in their lives spend more time focused on their memories rather than the current day.

This weekend I read How to Say it to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with our Elders by David Solie and he suggests that we stop worrying that our elders are “living in the past,” stressing that ever-longer strolls down memory lane are exactly what they are meant to be doing at this stage in their lives—making peace with what Dumbledore famously refers to as “the next great adventure.” This book could profoundly impact our work as legacy fundraisers, encouraging us to broaden our work so it becomes two-fold: raising money for important causes, but also supporting our elders as they review their lives. If we could do that—just think what a legacy we ourselves would be leaving behind.

Solie explains,

“Every day, whether they are millionaire moguls or retired postal clerks […] our elders are engaged in an elaborate process of reviewing their lives to find something of meaning that will last long after they depart. Some get the urge to write their life stories in elaborate detail, or make an oral history using a tape recorder. […] The need to be remembered, to uncover their lasting legacy, is the other urgent developmental task confronting them. Senior adults focus on reviewing their lives to find what it meant for them to have lived.”

Can we incorporate and support this deeply meaningful process, through our relationships with our senior donors, especially in legacy communications? We know that the better our stewardship of donors is, the greater loyalty we will see. This helps our charities financially, but it also feels respectful to slow down and spend time honoring those that have been the lifeblood of charities and the backbone of philanthropy for decades.

Sharing memories and legacy conversations

Encouraging donors to share their memories and stories is an easy and delightful way to build relationship through legacy communications.

Here are some questions you could pose in donor newsletters, legacy surveys or conversations that might open the door to the sharing of memories:

  • If you’ve spent many years in this community, you may remember a time before we had a hospital. What are some of your favourite early memories of growing up here?
  • Many of our donors support our work because they’ve travelled to countries that we have projects in. Is there a country or region you’ve travelled to that really stands out in your mind?
  • Giving back and taking care of others is often taught to us as children. Where did you learn about the joy of helping others?
  • I can tell from your support of <name > that live theatre is important to you. Where did you learn your love of the performing arts?

Solie tells us,

“Every day, every hour, whether they mention it or not, the seventy-five plus group is reviewing their lives. […] It is a continuous and involuntary retrospective in which senior adults weigh everything they have done in order to build understanding and acceptance of the life they lived. Suddenly they are called upon to shape out of the mists of their life experience a legacy that is […] heartfelt and meaningful.” Furthermore, he calls upon us to play an active role in supporting them. “How successful they are in discovering any aspect of their legacy depends on how successful we are in helping them through the process. […] We must take this role as seriously as we did the job of parenting.”

A role for legacy fundraising

For years, legacy fundraising was considered the domain of major donor fundraisers, because charitable bequests were considered the domain of the wealthy or it’s been run off the corner of the desk of the annual giving officer. Now that time is running out to talk to some of our very best donors about leaving a gift in their will, we are (thankfully) seeing more resources directed towards legacy fundraising. Still, most budgets barely cover the costs of print materials, a few mailings and possibly a follow-up phone campaign. Yet, we hear from many charities that the size of their average bequest is larger than their average major gift. And, we know that the pool of prospective legacy donors is far larger than the pool of potential major donors. Can you imagine if we didn’t stop at funding letters and brochures, but robustly invested in legacy staff who could encourage the sharing of memories and support the creation of true personal legacy? I think the results would be transformational.

I love the description of fundraisers as “dream brokers.” Over the years we’ve become skilled at helping major donors realize their philanthropic dreams. Let’s begin to also think of legacy donors as major donors – and to recognize the beautiful opportunity we have to help them reflect on their past and identify their vision of a better world.

This morning, when I dropped my mom off, I told her I needed to get home to finish writing an article about legacy fundraising. I asked if she had any tips for me. (Knowing she has at least half a dozen charities named in her Will – and she hasn’t told a single one of them!) She said, “Over the years we’ve had good and bad financial times. Sometimes we didn’t really have enough for me to keep sharing with the charities we supported. But I noticed that the more I gave away, the more I seemed to receive. You’d think it would be the other way around, but it wasn’t. The more I gave to other people, the more the world seemed to send my way.”

Solie talks about a person’s personal or “organic” legacy as being like an enormous quilt, created not from scraps of cloth materials, but from memory moments over a lifetime. I think my mother’s quilt is going to be a beautiful one. May that be true for all of us.


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