On August 25th of 2014, Kate, my wife and partner of 10+ years and dear friend for far longer, died unexpectedly at age 41.
Kate was a geriatric social worker and her passion was working with LGBT elders. So in lieu of flowers, I asked people to donate in her memory to the LGBT Aging Project, Kate’s favorite nonprofit. Whenever someone gave, I got a notice in the mail. And there were a lot of them, which was so lovely.
Being on this side of memorial gifts was a new experience for me. And being in the fundraising business, I couldn’t help but think about it from that perspective.
A friend suggested sharing my thoughts here…
Like asking for money, death is something that many people don’t want to talk about. We’re uncomfortable. We don’t know what to say or do. Maybe you think you shouldn’t say anything at all.
If you’ve struggled with how to best handle these situations, I hope these three pieces of advice are helpful…
1. Have a strategy for staying in touch with the people who give memorial gifts.
Kate’s loved ones will be thinking of her on her birthday and the anniversary of her death (not to mention countless other times) for a long while, in some cases forever.
When done right, those occasions give your organization the opportunity to reach out and connect with donors who have given in someone’s memory. It’s a way for you to show that you remember these important dates, and to ask people to give again in their loved one’s memory.
Many nonprofits write off memorial donors as people who will never give again. In our fear of upsetting or offending people, we say and do nothing. This is often how we respond to grief and loss more generally as well. I think this is a mistake.
These donors have a unique connection to you. It’s not likely the cause or the organization that inspired the gift. It’s their relationship with the deceased and/or their loved ones.
People often make memorial gifts because they feel helpless, sad, or guilty, and want to make something out of the loss. They may be giving to honor someone’s life in a way that will make a difference for others.
Regardless of the motivation, it’s a personal act that may hold more meaning for them than many of their other donations. That’s why it’s incumbent upon you to respond in a way that honors that experience.
Which brings me to my next point…
2. Be extra mindful of things you should be doing anyway.
A misspelled name is problematic under any circumstances, but when it comes to memorial giving, nothing could be much more insulting. Any errors may be taken as offensive, so triple check everything for accuracy.
Similarly, while your donors should always be at the heart of your communications, this is even more important when a gift is given in someone’s memory.
Compassion and empathy is critical. This is not the place for canned language or marketing. You can’t just take your acknowledgement letter, drop in the words “given in memory of someone close to you,” and hit merge. That’s a surefire way to guarantee the person won’t give again.
Offer your sympathies, express your appreciation for their choice to honor a loved one with a donation, and ask for their permission to stay connected.
Lastly, don’t just drop them into the traditional appeal cycle. That’s also unlikely to reap great results. Future communications and any solicitations must be crafted especially for memorial donors. That doesn’t mean you can’t repurpose your stories and materials. But it does mean that the context in which the information is presented must be through a very different lens.
3. Cultivate the person (partner, parent, sibling, etc.) who chose your nonprofit as the recipient of memorial gifts.
My involvement and connection with the LGBT Aging Project, an organization I already supported, has taken on a deeper meaning now that Kate is gone. Being connected to them keeps me connected to Kate, to something she was passionate about. And it allows me to continue that work in her absence.
People who choose your organization as the beneficiary of memorial gifts are major donor prospects and should be cultivated appropriately. First and foremost, you want to make sure the loved one feels in control of the contact they have with you. Ask for permission to stay connected to them. Be mindful of their grieving process.
Don’t overwhelm them with communication and contact in the months immediately following their loss. But don’t ignore them either.
Keep them updated on who has given and be sympathetic and heartfelt in your communications. Make sure they feel invited to contact you if they have needs or concerns.
Depending on the number of donations and the amount raised, you could offer the opportunity to start a tribute or memorial fund in the name of the deceased.
Gifts in memory are often a way to bring about something positive from a loss. A tribute fund is a way to make an ongoing difference and keeps their memory alive into the future. It’s also an opportunity to reach out to those who gave memorial gifts, keep them engaged and connected to your organization, and ask them to support the fund in the future.
What’s your experience with memorial gifts?