The Goldie Company

How to Better Manage In Memoriam Donations

Tuesday November 6, 2012

By Branka Gudelj

Not much research or writing has been devoted to in-memoriam donation management in spite of the fact that in-memoriam donations are one of the most common types of donations.  One might say that to within the fundraising field such donations are taken for granted, ironically, even immemorable.  

Fundraising practice defines in-memoriam donations as those meant to honour the memory of a family member, a friend, colleague, or a prominent member of society, who has passed away.  I’ve recently done some research on these donations towards a Master’s Degree at Université du Québec en Outaouais.  I discovered that there is much more to in-memoriam donation than meets the eye.  

For the purposes of my qualitative research, I interviewed 15 fundraisers from Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, with considerable and varied experience managing in-memoriam donations. Here are some key findings of this research that may be useful to fundraisers who manage in-memoriam donations:

1. Findings related to enhancement of accurate or prompt acknowledgement of in- memoriam donations:

  • As errors contained when recording an in-memoriam donation have the potential to cause great emotional hurt and anxiety to the grieving donors, it is important that all information, especially name of the deceased, be double checked (e.g. by checking obituaries and doing ‘Google’ searches). Read the credit card number and expiry date back to the donor. It is better to do this right the first time than to be calling the donor back because you wrote it down incorrectly.
  • Acknowledge major in-memoriam donations within the same timeline and using the same method - as you would any other major donations - by phone, and within 24 to 48 hours. This gesture is a gesture of support and an expression of gratitude.  However, your call must be appropriate for this type of donation. Draft a script before you make the call, one that suits you/your organization but deviate from it freely. With practice, you will not need a script.  
  • Hang a sign on your office door saying: “Making thank-you calls to in-memoriam donors”, so that you are not interrupted by an office staff (who may be very cheery) while the donor may be crying. For those at smaller charities, who fundraise from a common area, try to convince your superiors of the need for donor privacy and/or private office space from which to thank grieving donors.    
  • Ask to speak directly to the donor. (The spouse may not be aware of the major gift your donor has made!)
  • During the telephone call, keep the grieving donor in mind: use an appropriate tone of voice (not to be done with the same effervescence as those with other donors!), introduce yourself, express condolences and thank the donor. Some donors may cry, others may be silent for long periods of time... Stay calm and listen. Keep in mind that even if your donors are crying and distressed, they will appreciate the call.  
  • Stay away from saying: “I know how you feel”, because each case is unique and you really can’t know how your donor completely feels. However, it is possible to express compassion in your own unique way. Your expression of concern and shared sorrow can be valuable to your donors, for their sake, independently of its instrumental value in improving their condition.
  • Write details of your conversation down for the purposes of long-term cultivation and record it in your notes/database. If you are dealing with many donors, and are under stress, you will not be able to remember the conversation in great detail. It is especially important to remember details about the deceased because in-memoriam donors, especially family members of the deceased care about them the most.
  • Remember that your in-memoriam donor needs 100% of your attention. You are providing a valuable service for your cause and nothing else should make you rush through the call. Show respect: do not treat the in memoriam donor as a mere means to an end of your own by ignoring their personhood and their humanity.
  • Remember that grieving donors make mistakes or may not be able to provide you with all the information you need to process the donation. Your donors should never sense in your voice that you are frustrated.  
  • During the telephone acknowledgement of major in-memoriam donations, ask the donor why your organization was chosen as the cause of choice in this particular case. (e.g. If you don’t mind me asking, what was your relationship with deceased or ‘Why did you choose our charity’?). Again, listen and take notes.  
  • Follow up on conversation in a tailor-made, donor-centered way by seeking ways to engage the donor further. These ways of engagement must be appropriate and in-line with your mission/cause and your ethics policy.
  • Use of headphones is very useful when taking donation information over the phone. Headphones allow one to write with more ease (no need to hold the receiver between your head and shoulder while writing) and have a more genuine conversation with the donor.  
  • Establish a collaborative relationship with funeral homes or planned/legacy giving professionals to develop tools important to the success of in-memoriam and legacy programs (in-memoriam funeral home cards, charity on-line donation pages, on-line funeral home donation processing (e.g. Frontrunner) etc.
  • Show compassion, empathy, caring, sensitivity, and respect. Exuding these values when acknowledging in-memoriam donations will allow you to provide to the grieving family a chance at a new beginning, a re-invention, and perhaps, even a new ‘life’. Simply put, for in-memoriam donors who may be lonely, scared, isolated, or forgotten, fundraisers can facilitate a closing of the door on grief and an opening of a new door.
  • Some fundraisers felt very strongly that thank you calls to in- memoriam donors should only be done by more experienced fundraisers who have experienced grief themselves.
  • If you receive a large volume of in-memoriam donations, you may find it emotionally tasking, especially during winter months.  It is better to take a break/walk than to continue speaking to one in-memoriam donor call after another for long periods of time. Remember that you will serve your in memoriam donors better if you make your mental health a priority.


2.  Findings related to in-memoriam donor recognition:

  • Find ways to make recognition of in-memoriam donors intrinsic to your cause.
  • Ensure that the intended recognition has meaning to the donor and, even more importantly, ensure that it would respectfully and sincerely preserve the memory of the deceased.
  • In memoriam giving is intensely personal. Be cognisant of the fact that your major in memoriam donors may be grieving and may therefore take longer than your other major gift donors (sometimes months)  to decide what kind of recognition they may want for themselves or their deceased loved one.
  • Examples of recognition for in-memoriam donors used by some charities: web-based public condolence books, books of remembrances, commemorative plaques, in-memoriam park benches, tree planning, sculptures of loved ones, scholarships and bursaries, purchases of hospital beds etc.


3. Findings related to stewardship of in-memoriam donors:

  • Many fundraisers interviewed for the purposes of the research used the term ‘stewardship’ inaccurately, reflecting a mixture of confusion and lack of familiarity with the nuances of the definition.
  • Some fundraisers who were interviewed repeated a blanket belief, originating from anecdotal writings, that in-memoriam donors have no commitment to the charity and that they should therefore not be stewarded.
  • Some other fundraisers commented that good stewardship takes time and money to have returns.
  • Inadequate funding of in memoriam programs may be one factor that impedes good stewardship.
  • Some fundraisers indicated that those responsible for in-memoriam programs need to coordinate their stewardship efforts with planned giving/legacy staff.
  • Some charities found that they need to educate their fundraising staff, as well as the receptionist about grieving.
  • Remember that those who experience death of a loved one are often inspired to ‘do good’ by donating or volunteering for a charity that has had some connection to their loved one. These wishes to ‘do good’ were considered by some fundraisers as the donor’s first step toward seeking a relationship with the organization and, hence, as a signal that the donor needs to be stewarded well.
  • Tell the major in-memoriam donor how their money was spent and they will welcome the call, just like any other type of a donor.

Fundraisers interviewed said that to them in-memoriam donations carry with them most sensitivity, most emotion and are therefore most delicate to manage.  They warned other practitioners not to dismiss all in-memoriam donors as one time donors and keep waiting for the ‘goose that lays the golden egg’. In their view, some in-memoriam donors have the potential to bring in those ‘golden eggs’, if stewarded properly.