What’s your strategy for “in memoriam” gifts?

February 28, 2011

How do you recognize your organization’s “in memoriam” gifts?  Do you automatically dismiss them as “one-time” gifts, or do you cultivate and plant seeds?  My mentor/coach/beau of several years now, Rob, made an “in memorium” gift a few years back  What transpired next shouldn’t have surprised me …. but I’ll let him tell it:

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.

What’s the lesson here?

In the cultivation process the first gift is only the first step in creating lifetime relationships. That goes for in memoriam gifts as well.  A donor already has a connection when they make an in memoriam gift.  When a close friend’s eight-year old son passed away years ago I made a gift to the Pediatric Brain Stem Tumor Foundation.  I continued giving to that worthwhile organization for many years.  Having a solid system in place – a strategy, a plan – for expressing gratitude for every type of gift will grow your individual giving over time.

In life and in fundraising, gratitude is key.

SOFII now features an “in memoriam” thank you letter clinic. Check it out!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Bunnie Riedel February 28, 2011 at 6:22 am

In memoriam gifts are often an introduction to the organization and I would think they also have a strong emotional value. Good point on how nonprofits should handle them.

Pamela Grow February 28, 2011 at 6:27 am

Thanks Bunnie. I’ve got to confess that I used to automatically put “in memoriam” gifts in the one-time gift category and didn’t put a lot of thought into how these individuals could be cultivated.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE February 28, 2011 at 8:47 am

The person who gave an in memoriam gift might know very little about the organization or cause that they gave to. In some ways, it might be helpful to think of them as a prospective donor who will need much more background about your organization. I think a mistake that organizations make is to treat these in memoriam givers as if they just need a regular renewal.

I’d like to see a communication back that also asks if in memoriam givers would like to continue to get information from the organization. I know for me (caution, not to project from my personal story, I’m just one person) that the in memoriams are very often to a disease charity, and those organizations just aren’t on my giving screen. So I’d like to graciously decline further communications, rather than assumptions being made without asking.

KB March 1, 2011 at 8:09 am

Thanks, Pamela-

I can think of a Great Aunt’s cause that did this right and we still support them to this day.

Pamela Grow March 1, 2011 at 8:34 am

I rest my case. I do love Gayle’s reminder though to ask about further communications. IMO there is way too little listening going on in the donor relationship.

Marc A. Pitman, FundraisingCoach.com March 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm


This is a great reminder. When I worked at a hospital, one donor religiously gave an “in memoriam” gift annually.

Bulk gifts, like those requested by a family in lieu of flowers, might not be repeatable. But I bet a lot more are than many of us think!

Pamela Grow March 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm

I think so, Marc. When a close friend’s eight-year-old son died of complications from a pediatric brain stem tumor, I gave quite religiously to the foundation for years. Thanks for commenting!

Betsy Baker March 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Memorial gifts are received as a result of an emotional event. I think it’s perfectly acceptable, and should be encouraged, to inform the donor about the organization and continue to nurture that fledgling relationship. The fact that the donor chooses to give to an organization at all invites follow up.

Kirsten Bullock March 3, 2011 at 8:39 am

Thanks Pamela for this post. So often nonprofits, in an attempt to not offend, don’t invite people to become ongoing supporters. As having been guilty of this thinking in the past, I’ll try to not make assumptions on behalf of donors in the future!

Pamela Grow March 3, 2011 at 8:43 am

Thanks for posting Kirsten. Ditto on that thinking. It took a Penelope Burk seminar two years ago to begin changing my thinking … but it was “meeting” donor retention expert Lisa Sargent (in the virtual sense) that made me re-think “in memoriam” gifts entirely.

Sherry Truhlar March 7, 2011 at 8:47 am

I must say, I like Rob’s marketer way of thinking!! I see a “in memoriam” gift as a first point of contact. That donor came to your org and made a connection. A smart org is going to have a plan to build a relationship from that first contact.

Dan Blakemore April 7, 2011 at 7:42 am

Thanks for another great post, Pamela! This one really opened my eyes to the potential in memorial gifts.

Buby January 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Thanks Pamela for this post. This one really opened my eyes to the potential in memorial gifts.
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