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Bequests - An Unfinished Picture

25 June 2001 at 1:06 pm
Staff Reporter
Information generally about just how much money is left to charities in the final will and testament of generous Australians is still statistically incomplete....

Staff Reporter | 25 June 2001 at 1:06 pm


Bequests - An Unfinished Picture
25 June 2001 at 1:06 pm

When a little old lady leaves her millions to an animal welfare group in honour of her beloved feline companion ‘Fluffy’ it makes national headlines. But information generally about just how much money is left to charity in the final will and testament of generous Australians is still statistically incomplete.

The Fundraising Institute of Australia says by all the best reckoning, bequests are estimated to represent 30 percent of the total income from fundraising in the Not for Profit world.

A report by Philanthropy Australia says trusts and foundations which are mainly supported by bequests accounts for about $300 million of total funds.

But Mark Lyons, Professor of Social Economy at Sydney’s University of Technology, says while bequests form an important part of fundraising in Australia we just don’t know exactly how much is available.

He says one of the reasons is that the details are not required by law to be registered.

Prof. Lyons laments that it is a great big black whole in our knowledge.

And Prof. Lyons says there appears to be no simple way to find out.

He suggests that the Australian Bureau of Statistics could carry out a survey of individual solicitors but concedes that even that would be difficult.

Wills and Estate specialist Ken Collins from the firm Wills and Probate Victoria says another problem is the issue of client confidentiality.

He says the families of people who leave money to charity are often happy for the public acknowledgment while others are not.

Collins says the role of the solicitor is to ensure that the will is made properly.

He points out that solicitors don’t twist people’s arms to leave their money to charity.

The most current information comes from the organisation called Givewell, which aims to provide comprehensive research into Australian ‘giving’ trends as well as foster a better culture of giving.

The Executive Director of Givewell, Michael Walsh, says bequests are the most variable form of income for a charity and even for the big organisations it is impossible to budget reliably for it.

Fortunately for Australian charities bequests are on the rise.

Givewell’s recent survey of fifty Not for Profit organisations shows bequests in 2000 rose by 14% following on from an 11% increase in 1999.

Mr. Walsh says typically the big winners are welfare agencies and health related groups while those that receive far less in bequests are overseas aid organisations and environmental groups.

He says the role of bequests in charities as part of their fundraising varies from organisation to organisation.

Mr. Walsh says there are two important factors that affect an organisation’s potential to offer a successful bequest program.

Firstly, he suggests that it is the type of cause that people feel some personal connection with that has great appeal in the area of bequests, and secondly those groups that have developed and nurtured a mature donor base also have good bequest programs.

He says it’s not surprising then that animal welfare organisations get two-thirds of their funding from bequests while many other large organisations have an even spread of income from public appeals and corporate sponsorships.

Many charities and foundations say they have a ‘gut’ feeling about what they can budget for from bequests.

Prof. Mark Lyons points out that while Givewell has the most up-to-date information on the sector, the picture is still not complete.

Prof. Lyons says little is known about the bequests made to individual Churches or even the Arts and the challenge remains to draw all the threads together to produce the big picture.

If you would like to know more about Givewell check out the web site at

What’s your experience of bequests? Do you have any suggestions on compiling information or statistics? Click on to our Forum site to have your say at

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