“Be ye wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”

I know a Solicitor who had this quotation in a little frame on his desk as a reminder of how he believed he should handle difficult cases. I always took it to mean that we should behave decently and respectfully in all our working relationships, but we should be nobody’s fool. 

In our roles as Legacy Administrators, this can throw useful light on the balance we have already spoken about between securing the legacy we have been left and protecting the charity’s reputation. If we are to get that balance right, we will often have to take a firm line with a Solicitor who has been in funds for 12 months and is still refusing to let us have estate accounts, or with the lay Executor who has claimed an unauthorised sum of £10,000 for the time she has spent carrying out her duties-to give just two examples. 

Things can get even more delicate when the Executors request an ex-gratia payment that seems to us to have no substance to it. The perceived moral obligations in these situations will often bring more heat to the situation without shedding any more light on it. 

In dealing with situations such as these, it is often a good idea to make clear why we are acting as we are. The person raising the question (even a professional Executor) will not always be aware that, as charities, we are constrained by law in what we can agree to and in we are required by law to do. They may not realise that we have very little room for manoeuvre, so we have to ensure that we receive the full amount of the legacy we were left. Just explaining that clearly and in a level tone can often defuse a potentially difficult situation and avoid any adverse publicity. 

If this approach doesn’t do the trick, a firmer approach will be needed. This begins to take us into the territory where we might be considering legal action, which is where the PR issues begin to take on an even greater significance. 

When it comes to involving lawyers or threating, taking or defending legal action, battle lines quickly get drawn up and aggrieved parties who think that we are behaving “uncharitably” (even when we are just doing what the law requires of us) become more inclined to go to The Press or lash out on social media. 

How we handle these situations will, it goes without saying, depend on the facts of the case and the relationships involved. It will also depend on the Charity’s appetite for litigation. It is important that, as Legacy Administrators, we know just how robust our senior managers and our trustees are inclined to be in these circumstances. 

Once things get to this stage, in addition to making sure that our behaviour is unimpeachable, there are some key players we need to work with to manage the PR implications. Among these are: 

  • Our managers. As has been said above, it is important that decisions are made at the right level in the organisation. For many people, this will involve briefing clearly someone who has no direct experience of the job we do.  
  • Our co-beneficiaries. The benefits of agreeing a joint approach are enormous, not least because it prevents “the other side” playing one of us off against the others and portraying as the “bad guys” a charity that is only doing the right thing. 
  • Our PR teams, (or whoever it is in our organisation who deals with the Press). Larger charities will usually have dedicated and experienced teams who do this work; in smaller organisations it may just be a small part of someone’s job and something that arises very rarely. In all cases, it is as well to involve the relevant people as early in the process as possible. Giving someone a “heads-up” when something first looks as if it might get difficult is a useful precursor to the full briefing that may be needed later, especially if something happens that needs a quick response.  
  • Our lawyers. Any lawyer worth instructing will know the constraints that we, as charity Legacy Administrators, work under and will advise on possible PR implications as part of the advice they give. Many will also have dedicated teams who deal with the many legal aspects of press and public relations. 

To end on a happier note, it is worth remembering that not all PR is bad PR. We hear some lovely stories that can, with the requisite permissions, be used to show our gratitude and share messages about the wonderful work that legacies enable us to do.