More than just a one-off: what in memoriam gifts really (can) mean for your donor relationships

April 4, 2017

When a donor makes an “in memoriam” gift, they’re presenting you with more than just a one-time gift. In fact, “in memoriam” donations often provide organizations with an opportunity that they let slip through their fingers. They don’t see it, and they don’t act on it. In memoriams are typically viewed as one-offs when the reality is, there’s a wealth of potential that can be harnessed into something far more long-term and sustainable. I believe — in fact, I know — that if you steward these donors with compassion and kindness, and show them their impact in the best possible way, that these “one-timers” can blossom into something more.

I’ve written about this topic before, and I’ve recounted the following story before, but it begs to be told again. The account comes from my longtime beau, and I’ll let him tell it exactly like it was:

About five years ago, a close friend’s mother passed away from cancer (the same cancer my mom was fighting at the time). My friend said he preferred donations to cancer research over flowers so I gave a fairly substantial gift to a charity she supported.

I received an email confirmation of the gift, my friend received either an email or a card confirming the same and that was about it. Seriously, that was really it…other than perhaps three newsletters since then this organization never contacted me to give again. I guess this would not have made an impact on most people’s minds but being a marketer it struck me as a terrible faux pas – why not contact me on her anniversary? send letters to stay in touch and nurture a relationship with me? at least put me on a list for an annual campaign drive?

Remember, my mom had (and has since passed away as well from) the same cancer so I would have been very open to additional giving. It actually upsets me because I can see how badly they’ve bungled this process and how it ultimately prevents or at least slows down their research for the cure.

That account was relayed to me years ago, and I wrote about it well after it actually happened. So what got me back there, into a Memoriam frame of mind? Well, just recently, a student in our Power of Thank You donor stewardship class wrote in to ask this question:

As a hospice our biggest opportunity is the number of gifts that we process. However we only keep about 12% of our first time donors. Is this because we have so many donors we aren’t good at the next step – and our retention suffers or is inherent in that our donors are not directly impacted by our services and are only giving memorials because of the Obit or because their next door neighbor’s mother died? they were never our donor in the first place?

It was a good question and I wanted to answer it as best I could. So to do that, I reached out to some of my trusted colleagues to hear their respective takes on the matter. Mary Cahalane, Tom Ahern, and Leah Eustace, ACFRE provided some especially invaluable insight, and so I’ve published their responses below, in full and edit-free.

Mary says…

I wonder if they solicit their patients’ families – perhaps keeping in touch a few times through the year. Hospice is really, really emotional (having just BTDT). Families usually feel well cared for by the process, and it’s so much more human than the hospital. If they’re caring well for families through the patient’s life, and immediately after (bereavement counseling, etc.) they have the beginning of a relationship there.

Death is a hard one for everyone. But while my parents’ hospitals (crappy, awful treatment there) didn’t hesitate to solicit us, the hospice did not.

They could even note the day of death and send a card to the family, remembering the day. Yes, it seems a little morbid. But families like to remember their loved ones.

So what are their next steps? How well are they making their case and telling their stories? Can’t tell if that’s the problem without knowing what they are doing.

Tom says…

First question: Is 12% a bad conversion rate?

I suspect not. “In lieu of flowers” gifts are, in essence, a type of peer-to-peer fundraising: you give to honor the dead of friends and neighbors and family … but we only die once. So a repeating gift really isn’t part of the deal. Just like sponsoring your buddy in a 5K: you’re giving to him running a race, not to the cause.

As Mary said, the family treated by hospice is of course ridiculously grateful. Like her, BTDT with my 91-year-old mother-in-law, Jane, last year. Hospice answered all sorts of questions about a difficult process. Very comforting to all.

I wrote a pretty effective DM pack for a hospital system that included a hospice unit. It was sent to all “in lieu of flowers” givers, in an attempt to convert them into repeat donors.

It basically made the case that at some point every family might desperately need hospice … so it was important that the community have a very strongly supported one. It was pretty much the same case I use when promoting giving for a nonprofit community hospital: “we depend heavily on philanthropy and the more we have, the more we can do.”

No: I don’t know the response rate for my hospice conversion pack. I never asked. They never told me. I wrote it in 2001, though; and it was still the pack they used a decade later, so it must have paid its way. It was not timed to the gift. It was mailed at the same time each year, to mark Memorial Day.

Leah says…

“I, too, am grateful for our local hospice. I was my grandmother’s advocate and caregiver during her final year fighting lung cancer, and those last four days in the hospice were beautiful and magical. I was holding my grandmother’s hand, and whispering my love in her ear, when she passed. That moment will stand out in my memory forever. I wrote about it here: http://www.goodworksco.ca/joy-to-the-world/

The next day I made a $250 gift, and was ready to give much more (even a bequest would have been joyfully given at that time). But…

Two weeks later I received a thank you letter. It thanked me for my gift in memory of some woman I’d never heard of. I called. Their response was, “oh, that was a mistake.” No apology.

They lost my support. Had they found a way to speak to me appropriately during those first few days, I would have signed my soul over. I remain grateful for the care they gave (but certainly not for the donor care). Even some passive marketing (brochures or a poster laying around the hospice) would have triggered another gift from me.

They hold a ‘shine a light’ fundraiser every year, which I’ve gone to once. They send out a mailing and family and friends can make a donation, plus send back a card with a few words about their loved one. Then, just before Christmas, they invite everyone to join them for a celebration. All the cards are hung on a wall in a room full of twinkling lights, and there are musicians, poems and prayers. It’s quite lovely.

One of my clients has a focus on youth and suicide. They receive many memorial gifts and we’re working on a strategy to keep those donors engaged. An annual tribute to their loved one is one idea.

Like Tom, I’m not sure about what conversion rate should be expected, but with some careful stewardship and appropriate asks, I think you can get much higher than 12%.”

What I think it comes down to is this: between the hospice and the family, a unique relationship already exists, which everyone has not only mentioned but supported through their own personal accounts. Not to sound morbid, but these relationships are founded on death. Death is a lot of things, including a deeply human, emotional, and personal experience, and this basis makes any potential long-term relationships fundamentally different from others.

Still, organizations have the capacity to encourage in memoriam donors to extend their support beyond their first gift, if they consider the many nuances and complexities and treat them, and the relationship as a whole, with the utmost compassion, respect, and tact. After all, while emotion is often inherent within the connection between organizations and in memoriam supporters, all donor relationships should, as a general rule, should survive and thrive on a deep, emotional connection.

Additional Resources

In lieu of flowers: how to write lively memorial donation thank-you letters. Lisa Sargent.
In-memoriam donation thank-you letter samples. Lisa Sargent.

Is 12% a bad conversion rate? In our April 3, 2017 edition of Motivate Monday, guest Jay Love spoke to his experience following his mother’s death and offered up a novel way to use human connectors.

2017-04-03 13.00 Motivate Monday | With Pamela Grow – Apr 3, 2017 from Pamela Grow on Vimeo.

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