Meg Abdy, legacy giving consultant

Meg Abdy, legacy giving consultant

Meg Abdy is development director at Legacy Foresight, a consultancy specialising in researching, benchmarking and forecasting legacy and in-memory giving. Legacies (the charitable donations we leave in our wills) are worth around £3bn to UK charities every year; in-memory motivated gifts are worth another £2bn. In 2019 Meg marked 25 years since her first legacy forecasting project and also became one of our clients. This year, during lockdown, she launched a new venture.


In with the new


Louise: Lockdown came at an interesting time for you – your business was in the final stages of merging with two others. Presumably you’d been working towards this for months. It must have been really difficult, getting a new venture off the ground just as the world was spinning out of control?


Meg: Yes, the last six months have been a roller coaster for us. We had been thinking about succession planning for a few years, and seriously considering our options for the past 18 months. Having decided that yes, Legacy Link and Legacy Voice were the right partners for us, we entered into an intensive negotiation phase before Christmas, working hard to thrash out a deal that worked for both sides.


We pushed for exchange on 10th March – the day before the 11th March budget – and made it by the skin of our teeth. But of course, between exchange and completion at the end of March, everything changed. To be honest, I don’t think the seriousness of the situation dawned on me for a week or so, as I was such a post-deal zombie! But clearly the position we found ourselves in on 1st April was not what we had envisaged in all those months of planning.


Despite the huge layers of uncertainty and the complications of forging a new culture during lockdown, I can honestly say that I have no regrets, and I hope our new partners don’t either. We have three strong businesses with lots of potential, a brilliant team, and loyal customers. As long as we keep the faith, remain flexible and keep innovating I think the future is bright.


My biggest regret is that we had to cancel the celebratory team lunch we planned for late March – maybe next year…


You worked mainly in the private sector for 15 years, then as an independent consultant, and now although Legacy Foresight is a business your focus is on the voluntary sector. Are you someone that welcomes (and even seeks) change?


Yes, I do like change – though perhaps not the bucketfuls we have at the moment! I think any organisation, any sector is interesting when you look below the surface.


“Maybe it’s my social sciences background; I’m fascinated by big-picture market drivers and workplace cultures.”


Although I started my life very firmly in the business world, I am lucky to have worked across all three sectors. I loved the pace and glamour of the eighties corporate world, though found it hard to stomach the machismo. In the noughties I ran a small regeneration consultancy, working on retail and cultural projects across the north-east of England. The work was exciting and at times inspiring, but I could never work inside the public sector – too much bureaucracy, not enough room for manoeuvre.


For me, well-run charities represent the best of both worlds – they are values-driven but entrepreneurial too. So maybe I have found my home at last.


You have been leading Legacy Foresight for many years and in fact did your first legacy marketing forecasting project 25 years ago. How has your role changed over the past couple of decades? Does it become a little tedious after a while, or are you still as challenged and fulfilled by it now as you were at the start?


No, it’s never tedious as there’s always new things to learn, new people to meet. Over time my role has changed from doing the work, to managing other people (who are generally far more proficient than me!), to coming up with new ideas. In the past five years our realm has expanded beyond the UK, to work in the Netherlands and now Australia. I love working with people from other countries, as they challenge my preconceptions. British charities are well advanced when it comes to legacy and in-memory fundraising – arguably the most advanced in the world – but we still have much to improve upon.


Nowadays I also get a kick out of managing our team. Our guys are all experienced experts with many years under their belts. You can’t tell them what to do, just direct and enable them to do the best work they can. It’s a joy to see people gelling, and coming up with new solutions, things I could not do or even imagine myself.

Where there’s a will


You work to benchmark, analyse and forecast trends in legacy giving. Last autumn you launched a report which predicted that legacy and in-memory donations to UK charities will double by 2045, driven in part by wealthy baby boomers. Is that still the case, do you think? Or has Covid-19 unraveled everything we thought we knew?


Hmm. I came across a lovely quote from John Kenneth Galbraith the other day. He said “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”. I don’t think in our wildest nightmares we envisaged Covid-19 when we produced our report.


“That said, I do still feel optimistic about the outlook for legacy giving in the long term.”


The sheer demographics work in its favour – over the next 30 years the number of UK deaths will rise from 600,000 to 800,000 a year, driven by the baby boomers. And compared to the generations before them, the boomers are significantly more wealthy, and more open to the idea of leaving a gift to charity.


Our main concern is about the effect that this chronic, multi-faceted uncertainty will have on boomers’ desire to protect their families through their wills, at the expense of charities. We had already picked this up before coronavirus struck. Since the global financial crisis in 2008 boomers – who up to then had lived almost charmed lives – have been feeling increasingly bruised, confused and angry. In such an uncertain environment, it’s perhaps harder to make the case for leaving the world (and not just your family) better off. Although I would argue it’s more important now than ever.


One reason for my continued optimism is that one in five women born in the 1960s (women like me) are childless, and childless people are far more likely to leave a gift in their will – often a large one at that. Today’s child-free generation is a million miles from the stereotypical ‘spinster’ of 30 years ago – they are confident, free-spirited and with independent financial means. I believe that the new generation of child-free supporters will choose charities over far-flung relatives if the case for support is made in the right way.


What should concern charities the most now – the immediate crisis or the possibility of a much longer-term economic downturn?


It very much depends on the charity. If you are highly dependent on (say) charity shops or fundraising events, and/or if your reserves are low, then getting through the next six months will be critical. For others, I think the downturn will be more important. The good news is that older households seem to be less affected by the downturn, at least for now. So income from older charity supporters may hold up relatively well.


It is very difficult to look into the future with any level of certainty, but as an analyst and forecaster you are better placed than most to do just that. What do you think are the main opportunities over the next year or so, both for legacy fundraisers specifically, but also for whole fundraising teams?


For legacy fundraisers, I think there’s a window of opportunity over the next six months, ironically due to the coronavirus. In a survey of 2,000 adults carried out in early June, we asked about the impact of the pandemic on will-making. Overall, a quarter (24%) of respondents agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made them more likely to make or re-write their will. In fact, one in five adults (19%) claimed to be seriously considering making or re-writing their will as a result of the pandemic. Nowadays, with the plethora of charity free will schemes on offer, both face-to-face and online, the sector is ideally placed to help. And if at the same time, they can encourage people to include charities in their will, so much the better.


“For fundraising teams in general I would point to the huge surge of community spirit unleashed by the crisis. That’s not hype, that’s real. The British public want to make our world a better, kinder, fairer place; and charities should be central to making that happen.”

Change – for the better?


Your business model has always been impressively flexible, with a deliberate focus on work-life-balance. So lockdown hasn’t been an enormous shift for you and your team, presumably – although many will now have children running around at home while they are trying to work, of course. What have been the main challenges for you and your colleagues?


Yes, our business model has always been virtual. We attract bright, experienced, capable people who are looking for a different way of working. They deliver the results – and some – but we don’t dictate when and where they work. A few years ago one of our analysts was based in Ethiopia as his doctor wife had a placement there. It worked out fine.


Many of our team have young children, and they want to be around as they grow up, sharing the load – and the fun – with their partners. And it’s not all mothers – three of our team are men whose wives have the more conventional 9-5 jobs. It’s a far cry from when I was in my twenties and thirties, and a change I whole-heartedly support.


So, in many ways lockdown was less of a shock to us than for many businesses. But it’s still got its challenges. Keeping on working while home-schooling the kids is incredibly stressful – I often see emails sent at midnight or 5am. And sharing the office with a home-based partner is never easy. One colleague has seen his two twenty-something daughters (and one boyfriend) move back home, stretching his broadband to the limit!


Although we are virtual, regular face-to-face meetings are a vital way of creating the team ‘glue’. Like the rest of the country, we are on endless Teams/Zoom calls, but it’s not the same. I can’t wait until we can all get together again.


And what have been the main benefits, both for your team and for you personally?


The lockdown has forced us to rethink how we manage communications with our clients. We are doing a lot more webinars and virtual presentations. We have also set up new online discussion forums to help clients share ideas. To be honest we should have been doing more of this before – it always went on the ‘too difficult for now’ pile. But the money saved by us – and our clients – on time, travel, venue hire and curled up sandwiches (let alone the reduced environmental costs) is significant.


We still need to learn how to do online meetings better – it’s a performance which needs to be directed like a play or a concert. For now, our audiences are fairly forgiving, but as it becomes the ‘new normal’, standards will need to rise. I think in future we will use a mix of online and face-to-face, but hopefully it will be a conscious, orchestrated choice, not a default.


(For me personally, I’m enjoying more time at home in North Yorkshire, but I still miss the London buzz.)


There is a lot of discussion about what we can each learn from this time of crisis, and how we as a society can change for the better. What’s the main thing you have learnt?


Two things. Never take your situation for granted – we need to be continually questioning, listening and instigating change.


“And don’t put off that big idea – do it now.”



Interview originally published in July 2020.