Interview with former and new Chairman of Will Aid
Will Aid 2015 takes place in November and organisers are currently looking for solicitors to get involved. Former chairman Chris Millward — now Chief Executive at the ILM — told Today’s Wills & Probate why it’s such an important event and is still going strong 27 years after its inception and new chairman James Huitson discusses his plans for the future.
Chris Millward, former Chairman of Will Aid
Chris, why do you think Will Aid is such an important scheme?
“Will Aid, born at the same time as Live Aid, was the response to the crisis in Ethiopia of a group of solicitors who wanted to help.
“’Well we can give our time and provide a service,’ they decided — and that’s how Will Aid started. It’s a simple idea — the solicitors write wills for clients introduced by Will Aid but, instead of paying a fee, the clients make a donation to Will Aid. The suggested donation is £95 for a single basic will and we share that between nine charities, including Save the Children, Age UK, Christian Aid and the NSPCC.
“The fact it’s not a free will writing service but a voluntary donation at a suggested level reflects, we believe, the professionalism and time that solicitors are giving. And I think that’s important. My concern at the moment is that a lot of will writing appears to be, in price terms anyway, a bit of a race to the bottom and that’s impacting on people’s perceptions of the value of a solicitor’s work and time. Often people are unwilling to pay the going rate for a solicitor’s advice when it comes to having a will written when they can use something like the National Free Wills Network or a charity’s scheme and I do wonder whether we’re creating a bit of a tension there. That’s why Will Aid is so important — it reflects the value of a solicitor’s expertise.
“And from a consumer point of view it overcomes conceivably one of the biggest barriers in the marketplace which is inertia. Even when people say they want to write their will they need to be spurred on to take action and Will Aid does that — it only happens once a year and, so, creates a moment in consumer terms, focusing the mind. And from a marketing perspective it means activity can be driven around that moment, which is hugely helpful.”
How has Will Aid evolved over the years?
“Over the past six years we’ve written 165,000 wills through Will Aid; raised £17 million in donations and had over £50 million pledged in gifts in wills to charities so it’s been a great success. But like anything it needs to evolve — the marketplace has changed and the competitive landscape around solicitors is very different now to what it was 27 years ago.
“So while the underlying model — the solicitors giving their time for free and the charities receiving the benefit — hasn’t changed since the day it began, we are starting to see a little more pressure. Historically we have had 1600 solicitors’ firms taking part each year but demand from consumers has increased threefold and we don’t have enough capacity — that is, enough solicitors — to furnish that.”
Why not open it up to will writers as well as solicitors?
“That’s a really interesting debate. We have a challenge around capacity but quality is really important as well and, of course, consumer protection should anything go wrong. Solicitor involvement has always been absolutely integral to Will Aid and we don’t see that changing.”
James Huitson, new Chairman of Will Aid
When were you announced as the new chairman of Will Aid, James?
“I took over from Chris in July so it’s fairly busy all round but Chris’ thoughts on Will Aid very much chime with mine and that makes life easier. I’ve been involved with Will Aid for the past 18 months through my role at Sightsavers, where I’m head of market development and my job involves developing Sightsavers’ fundraising internationally and looking after Sightsavers’ legacy work. So I’ve been on the Will Aid board — each member charity has a representative — and attending the quarterly meetings for a while now.”
Why are you so passionate about Will Aid?
“Working internationally has given me a real appreciation for just how special Will Aid is — most countries do not have any scheme similar and certainly not one that has been running for nearly 30 years.
“The beauty of Will Aid is that it creates so many win-win situations. The solicitors benefit from potential new customers coming through their doors and it’s a classic corporate responsibility exercise — they’re using their professional skills for the greater good.
“Clients who sign up to Will Aid benefit as obviously having a solicitor write a will is the gold standard and it makes it accessible as they know what the suggested donation is and they are not turned away if they can’t afford it. It’s a good way of making the will writing process comfortable too. Often people are intimidated by solicitors but Will Aid removes some of that. Both solicitor and client obviously believe in the Will Aid ethos and that creates a conversation from the start.
“And, finally, the Will Aid member charities benefit too — greatly.”
What benefits has Will Aid brought to Sightsavers, for example?
“Ultimately Will Aid is about the incredible work it funds in the UK and around the world. Last year for Sightsavers it meant we could fund 8,000 sight restoring cataract operations. Enabling people to see the faces of their loved ones again is amazing — and that’s just at Sightsavers. Other partners will have been able to do similar things.”
How do solicitors get involved?
“We’re in the peak recruitment period for solicitors now so we’re very happy for lawyers to raise their hands and join the campaign. In fact, we have a supply and demand problem at the moment, particularly in London and the south-east of England — we have around four times as many people want to use the service as solicitors participating.
“So yes — we’d be thrilled to hear from any solicitors who are interested. Either log on to our website — www.willaid.org.uk — or contact the campaign director Peter de Vena Franks at [email protected].”
Are solicitors who sign up expected to fulfil a certain number of appointments?
“No — solicitors can offer as many slots as they feel comfortable with so that could be four or 40. We don’t ask them to commit to a minimum number of appointments — every will that’s written is important to us.”
And how do you promote Will Aid to the public?
“Our member charities promote the campaign to their existing supporters, through their social media, perhaps, and information leaflets in their charity shops. Christian Aid, for example, has a great network to promote Will Aid through with the Church of England and that always works really well.
“And then we have more general publicity so that’s promotional materials in libraries and Citizens Advice Bureaus and then some PR around Will Aid in consumer publications and on websites like Martin Lewis’ Money Saving Expert.”
And how does it work from the consumer’s point of view?
“Registration opens in September through the website so all people need to do is type their postcode in and they’ll be shown a list of participating firms. But, due to the shortfall in the number of solicitors taking part, they do need to be sign up early.”
What about the future of Will Aid — are you planning any new innovations now that you’re Chair?
“We’ll keep going as we are — it’s working well — but one particular thing I’m interested in is finding ways of engaging with solicitors and discovering what would encourage them to participate in greater numbers. We talk to the Law Society and its Wills and Equity Committee and try to engage with solicitors through that but creating dialogue with a wider audience would be really useful. So if any solicitors reading this have any views on what we could to make Will Aid a more attractive proposition to them please do get in touch and let us know.”
For more information on Will Aid log on to www.willaid.org.uk
View our previous interview on Today’s Wills & Probate with Chris Millward