In Lieu of Flowers: Managing Your Memorial Donations

Tim Sarrantonio

My father-in-law passed away right before Christmas. While we’ve known that his cancer was terminal, it never makes the process easier to accept. He was a funny and caring man and I know my children will miss having a grandpa to read to them.

A few years ago, my sister-in-law also passed away from cancer . Friends and family set up a memorial foundation for her. You can learn about the Megan Lally Memorial Fund here, if you’re interested. When my father-in-law passed away, he asked that donations be made to Megan’s memorial fund in lieu of flowers.

This is a common practice when someone passes away. When I managed the annual fund at my last job for a Catholic school, we would receive memorial donations all the time. Death is a very delicate subject, but one that can potentially create a lasting connection between a donor and your organization. Unfortunately many nonprofits have not developed the processes and procedures to engage one of the most important gifts your organization may receive.

Because of my recent experience, I wanted to take the time to share some ways that your nonprofit can properly handle the memorial gifts process. While stewardship should be a top priority no matter the reason someone gives, memorial gifts have some special considerations to take into account that we’ll cover below.

Engage the family of the deceased

Many times a family member of the deceased will reach out to your organization to inform you that they have indicated gifts should be made to your organization. Typically this information will be listed in the obituary and/or information at the wake and funeral. When the family member reaches out, ask who should be the primary recipient of acknowledgements and communications regarding the memorial donations.

Sometimes a gift may come without prior notice. Look through your donor management system to see if the person is in your database and mark them as a memorial recipient if they are there. If no such name exists, check with board members and executive staff to understand if there is a relationship. No matter what, try to make contact with the family as soon as possible — while understanding that this is a delicate time.

Streamline your donor communications

There are many factors to consider when drafting copy related to memorial gifts. Unlike a gift to your annual fund, there needs to be communication related to both your donors as well as the family themselves. Let’s start with the donors.

Do not utilize your standard thank you template when receipting a memorial gift. Nothing turns off donors more than feeling that their gift is not special, and memorial gifts are some of the most distinctive gifts of them all. Language is extremely important when creating thank you letters for memorial donations so be aware of making assumptions around the relationship of the donor and the person the memorial was created for.

Zach Shefska, of NeonOne partner Fundraising Report Card wrote a really wonderful blog after his own mother passed away, discussing the donor experience surrounding memorial gifts. I highly suggest reading through it. On the donor experience, he writes: “It’s easy to forget because we’re all a part of this industry everyday, but donating is an intimate experience — memorial donations even more so. As development staff, make it your goal to learn more about the ‘why’ so that you can focus your engagement with donors in the future on what they care about most.”

You will also need to communicate with the primary contact for the memorial, informing them that gifts have been made because of the person who passed away. These letters should have their own unique template and ensure that the donation is noted. Names and addresses of donors are appropriate information to send to the primary family contact, but do not include the amount of the donation itself.

Manage memorial data well

One of the most embarrassing moments working at my last job was when I engaged a memorial donation but provided my development director the incorrect relationship between the deceased and the primary family contact. While the relationship was put into the database incorrectly before I started working there, I should have taken the time to verify things.

The best case scenario is that we are told by the family that donations will be sent to our organization because of someone passing away, that the proper family contact will be provided, and that donors will include all pertinent information on why they gave. The reality is that death is messy and leaves many things unfinished and unclear, so we need to be patient and understanding when it comes to piecing things together.

Marking that a record is not only deceased but also a memorial recipient should be your first priority, followed by marking the memorial donations themselves. There’s nothing more embarrassing or frustrating than accidentally mailing an appeal to a memorial donation recipient.

Beyond the memorial

Thinking about sending appeals after a memorial donation? Your organization should consider it carefully. Most likely, the donor making an in memory donation doesn’t have a relationship with your organization and donated because of the memorial itself. Consider filtering these donors out of your traditional appeals and do something special for them, such as a donation anniversary acknowledgement with a soft appeal attached.

Keeping them invested in your mission and communicating the impact of their gift can help build a long-term relationship. By handling memorial donations with grace and respect, you ensure that these gifts have a long lasting impact on your mission and build a long-term culture of stewardship in your organization

Showing 3 comments
  • Dennis Fischman

    Tim, so sorry to hear about the death of your father-in-law. Thanks for giving us the benefit of your experience and reflecting on how we can help the survivors feel their loved one is being truly honored by the donations.

    • Tim Sarrantonio

      Dennis, thank you for your kind words. I’ve always wondered how other nonprofits do things and struggled with it at my own job, so I figured this might be of some help.

  • Toudjidoum

    In this time we are teaching in difficult conditions which are not far away the death.
    Our kids learn English exposed of sun, rainy season, wind, dust provided by a straw built as classroom.
    More once our kids sat on the benches and write thank to their calves since they lean there to take note.
    These above situation doesn’t enable us to reach our goal neither established program because of the rainy season prevent from us to acheive our program.
    Sometimes we rent the building somewhere to complete our school cursis.
    For all of discovering us please refer our project which under your hands.

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