Thursday, November 21, 2013

In Memoriam and In Honor Gifts

Every now and then, life challenges us in ways unimaginable. This week, my friend's father passed away and I have been stewarding the family through the process. Was I prepared? Is this something I've ever done before? Nope. Did my skills in donor relations and stewardship come in very handy? Absolutely. As a part of the process, we identified two organizations and funds that would receive gifts in lieu of flowers or memorials.  It was a difficult process but in the end a very rewarding one. Do you have your ducks in a row for donors or families who choose your nonprofit to donate to?
If you don't, I highly encourage you examine your processes. When a bereaved family member or representative calls, who answers the phone and what is the process? Do you have something in place to make it less awkward and troublesome for them? What does your notification process look like? Can donors sends card or note from you to let the family know? Do you have notecards for families who want to send thank yous to the donors? Instead of just giving them a list of people who have contributed, why not also provide them with some beautiful notecards and a pen to help them complete their notes? 

I can tell you from a few days of experience that it's wonderful to have someone take care of the details for you, someone you can call at the nonprofit to ask questions and help you through the process. Are your notifications simply a modified receipt or is it truly a sensitive and meaningful touch point. Have you made sure that the donors who give in honor or in memory of someone don't receive a phone or mail solicitation the next month or quarter? 

Have you spoken with your development officers and front line fundraisers? Let's encourage everyone not to establish restricted or endowed funds in memory of someone unless you know there will be adequate gifts to fulfill the minimum. There is nothing worse than a memorial or honorarium fund that goes unspent or doesn't have enough money in it to award. Explaining that to a family is awkward at best. It's hard to tell a family that many their family member's death or loss won't raise the minimum, but it's better to steer them to unrestricted or scholarship or something and then think of recognition later to avoid those pitfalls. I've seen too many memorial gifts go wrong, it can reopen a horrible wound. 

Don't ask the family or representative to complete lots of paperwork in order to make this happen, especially in the beginning. Unfortunately death brings a great deal of paperwork with it, I was shocked by it, so adding one more thing is an undue burden to them. Help them and offer to be a resource but take the bureaucracy out of the process if possible. Many of these things sound like common sense, but you would be amazed at how many people get it wrong. 
What does your process look like? Have you been through this before? What are other tips and tricks you can share to help us all?



  1. I have personally gone through this process and it is a lot of paperwork. I have also guided quite a few widows/widowers through this process when they want to set up a fund at UHart. I suggest that they bring someone with them because in the early stages, they are in the robotic stage and unable to absorb what is really going on around them. I address most of the questions and paperwork to the other person. As strange as this sounds, having experienced the loss of my husband really does help me to connect to the donor and help them get through the process. I also suggest that they not only put "in lieu of flowers" in the obit but that they suggest to family and friends that instead of anniversary, birthday or holiday gifts that they contribute to the loved one's fund. It is a very difficult time and they don't want their loved one to be forgotten. So be mindful of the mourners who think they will raise lots of money for a fund when in reality - very little comes in. Unless the donor funds the scholarship themselves - often not enough is raised to create a new fund. Just put yourself in their heads best you can and you will make the connection they need.

  2. Thanks for the great reminders, Lynne. Our department is taking over this process later this fiscal year and I can hardly wait to get in there and improve it! I love your idea of providing the families with notecards. I've included this in my budget for next year. Your friend is lucky to have you at such a difficult time.

  3. We had a high profile Bostonian ask for gifts to be made in her memory to our organization. If we learned anything (and this is 2.5 years, 1,500 gifts, and $4M plus later), it's to have more than one person be able to change the online donation form so that people could both write in the in memory name as well as pick it from a drop down. This all happened 10 days before I started here and I spent my first few weeks calling and following up with donors who thought they had made a gift, but it didn't completely go through. It was a great opportunity for me to connect with donors in my early days, but was so much work on our operations team side. I know this is the not typical case at all, but the technology section is a big deal and we want to make it as easy as possible for donors and the mourning family.

  4. Really great post and follow-up comments. Like money in general, I find people tend to not want to talk about death and the logistics around it. The best advice has already been said, but I'll reiterate: Make is simple for the family. Make it simple for donors to tell you who their donating in memory of. And make it simple for the family to get the list of donors so they can thank them too.

    My spouse and I made a pretty substantial gift in memory of a good friend last year. The organization did not have a mechanism for allowing the family to see a list. In fact they told the family that the donor list was confidential and now the property of the organization. Over $10,000 had been generated by Randy's passing and his wife didn't learn that until much later when she made a ruckus and asked for changes to be put in place to make the system much more family focused and user-friendly.