Why In Memoriam Donors Don’t Give Again

Why In Memoriam Donors Don’t Give Again

Commonly accepted thinking in fundraising is that it’s not worth trying to renew in memoriam donors because they give for a reason that has nothing to do with the cause. There are a few exceptions, of course – most notably causes working to eradicate the deadliest diseases. But these not-for-profits’ in memoriam programs don’t actually perform any better against the critical measures of renewal and gift value. It’s just that so many people die of cancer or heart disease, for example, that the in memoriam gifts line on those not-for-profits’ revenue statements is, ironically, reliably healthy.

My company’s ongoing research suggests that there is significant, untapped potential among in memoriam donors. And, my personal experience as a donor who has made gifts in honor of people who have died, shines a spotlight on why in memoriam donors don’t give again.

Why Fundraisers Should Think Differently About In Memoriam Donors

In 2017, 23% of donors in The Burk Donor Survey made at least one in memoriam donation, putting this kind of gift transaction among the top six reasons donors gave that year. Not surprising, in memoriam giving was even higher among senior donors (32%). For donors 65 years of age or older, making a gift in honor of someone who has died is the second most frequent reason for giving.

It is increasingly expensive and difficult to get donors to start giving. In the last five years alone, donor acquisition has fallen and first-gift-to-second-ask attrition has reached an all-time high of 65%. Add to that, fewer donors are giving at all. In 2014, only 56% of Americans made at least one charitable gift, down from 69% in 2002[1].

So, if you are honored as the recipient of in memoriam gifts, shouldn’t you be humbled by that thought and very grateful? And, doesn’t it make sense to respond in a way that would inspire more in memoriam donors to consider adopting you as one of their causes, and maybe even as a favored cause over time?

 It’s All About How In Memoriam Donors Are Acknowledged

The inevitability of death doesn’t lessen the pain. At the very moment they are sending you contributions, all in memoriam donors are experiencing grief, loss and helplessness. They want to do something for their friend, their relative, the person who is left devastated and they are frustrated by their fumbling attempts to offer comfort – “Please don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.” Of course the person left behind needs something. He needs his wife to come back; she needs her mother to be alive again. It all feels so inadequate, so amateurish, and so unfair.

And, then, there you are. From the depths of sorrow, the person for whom their hearts are aching lets it be known that there is something their friends, relatives and colleagues can do. Your organization has been chosen should anyone wish to make an in memoriam contribution. Instantly, people who are struggling step forward, hoping that the pain they are feeling too will be momentarily soothed by a grateful not-for-profit.

A few weeks later, this arrives:
(Click letter below to zoom in)

How to Improve In Memoriam Acknowledgements

  1. It’s not about you. Yes, fundraisers are right about what motivates in memoriam donors to give, so don’t use this exceptionally sensitive moment to focus the attention on yourself.
  2. It’s not really about the money, either. All thank you letters (not just in memoriam ones) should talk to the human being who gave rather than just being appreciative of the money you received. Enclose a separate IRS or CRA acknowledgement with the letter, so that your thoughtful prose is not jarred by administrative language.
  3. Do your homework. If you don’t already know the person who died, read the obituary and the personal remembrances that people post online. In today’s electronic and social media environment, information is easily accessible that will give you a glimpse into the deceased’s life.
  4. It’s not about fundraising. Thank you letters signed by professional fundraisers (especially by someone with the words, “Business Development” in his/her title) remind donors that you only see their gesture for its financial value to your not-for-profit. Thank you letters should come from CEOs, Leadership Volunteers, Professors, Artistic Directors and others who represent the mission of your organization.
  5. Stop and consider to whom you are writing. Check your records. Is your in memoriam donor a contributor in other ways – a member, perhaps, or a former volunteer? A few years ago, I made an in memoriam gift to an organization within walking distance of my home and to which I was a member. The acknowledgement letter spoke to me as if I had never heard of them.
  6. Be timely. Meet the two-week window for turning around thank you letters to donors, regardless of gift value.


The Next Ask Is Your Big Test

If you throw your in memoriam donors into your general renewal file and send them a typical appeal, they will not give again. But, you have the opportunity to achieve a different result if you tie your next ask to the reason they gave in the first place. This advice from a donor in one of our research studies sums it up beautifully:

When my dog, Chloe, died I sent an in-memoriam gift to my local animal shelter. About four months later I received an appeal which started, “Dear Animal Lover”.

 It must be hard to keep track of all the people who give to memorialize their pets. But if they had addressed me by name and included something like, …I know it’s only been a few months since Chloe died, etc… I would have written them another check immediately and it would have been bigger than the last one.

 90% of donors in our research studies say that the thank you letter is the single most important and influential communication they ever receive from not-for-profits they support. In memoriam acknowledgements can be amazing and they can provide real comfort and support to people who are hurting. Give them the best you’ve got; you won’t regret it.

Dear Bill and Jean,

 John Allen touched many lives, including mine and many of my colleagues here at XYZ Hospital. I find myself feeling a combination of sadness over his passing and gratitude for having known him.

 We are deeply honored and very appreciative of your gift in tribute to this amazing person who did so much for both our hospital and the entire community. John and his family have agreed that funds offered in his memory will be used to make the family gathering rooms in the palliative care wing more comfortable and functional.

 Thank you for remembering John and his family in such a thoughtful way.

 With gratitude,

 Raj Hemal
Chief, Palliative Care Medicine


[1]University of Michigan/IUPUI Panel Study

Showing 6 comments
  • John Clese

    Thank you Penelope for simplifying something that shouldn’t be so difficult in the first place, showing people you truly care and are appreciative of their efforts to help your organization. Nobody wants to feel unrecognized, and they certainly don’t want to feel like an ATM machine!

  • Pete Hutton

    Outstanding thoughts. I’ve always wondered why organizations feel memorial gifts are “throw away” names, saying, “After all, they’ll never give again.” How can they know that? Doesn’t this kind of thinking become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Thanks for your great insight and suggestions, Penelope. Pete

  • Doug Ferrick

    Dear Penelope,

    This is so timely for our shop. We have been very blessed to have been selected for memorial gifts. We took a bit of a different route recently in that we added these donors into our first time donor phone call group. So we call, extend our sympathies and let them know we will put their funds to work. Listen to the donors on why they made the memorial gift. I’ve heard some wonderful comments by these donors. So far, the donors seem to be appreciative of the call. If we don’t have a phone number, we write a hand written note expressing sympathy and appreciation. We also acknowledge that this is their first gift and how much that means to our mission with kids.

    An area where we fall short with these donors is to say, in 3-6 months doing a report back. Your gift helped us do….. and so the memory of your dear friend, family member, etc continues on, continues to do good. We will adding in this step, we didn’t before.

    When we are selected by a family to be the memorial charity, we should plan greater follow up with them as well. We didn’t do this consistently either.

    I agree with you, I think this is an untapped area that requires some careful and thoughtful strategy and attention. I want to see if over the next 12-18 months some of these donors may continue their support.

    Would appreciate any additional thoughts you have,

    Thanks again for bringing up this important topic.


    • Penelope

      My one other thought is that while today’s donors are supporting fewer not-for-profits than before, they remain open to taking on a new cause. In fundraising, we are used to trying to acquire as many donors as possible all at once without the resources to sustain those relationships. In memoriam donors come to us without our having to acquire them. Your thoughtful response at this sensitive time could establish a lifelong relationship. (36% of donors in our 2018 Burk Donor Survey said they held their philanthropy back last year, waiting for the right signal from a results-oriented and respectful not-for-profit.

  • Amy

    This is very helpful in redesigning our in memoriam acknowledgements. Along the same lines, I’m wondering if we should be adding honorees to our database who a donor has donated in honor of. It is kosher to solicit folks who didn’t seek us out, but were honored with a gift from one of our existing donors? I’m curious what the common wisdom is on this practice.

    • Penelope Burk

      We do not have any research data on this issue specifically, but my view is that all ideas should be tested, and then you will know whether or not your idea should be adopted and expanded on a wider scale. I suggest you do a donor-centered test which adheres to the three things donors say they need in order to stay loyal and give more generously.

      Step 1: Create a file of all or some of the honoree donors who have given over the past year and send them a communication that showcases what you have accomplished in that time with the gifts they made. This should not contain an ask, but you could include a link to your website that offers donors more information on your success, thanks to donors’ support. (BTW, in the future you should assign honorees’ gifts to a specific program or project right away and acknowledge that in the thank you letter you send to them so that these donors know they are funding something that is important to furthering your mission.)

      Step 2: Sometime after sending this communication, solicit these donors with a specific ask that showcases either the program they are currently funding or another initiative that is important to fulfilling your mission.

      Step 3: Send a very appealing thank you letter to all donors who give in response to this ask. Make sure you mark in your database that these donors are part of your “Honoree Test” or whatever you want to name the test group. Our latest edition of The Donor-Centered Thank You Letters Project provides some great examples of superior acknowledgements.

      Step 4: At a later point in time, perhaps 6 months later, run a report that compares rate of renewal and average gift value among these test donors.

      Step 5: Decide whether to continue the program, discontinue it or continue with modifications based on the test data results. Of course, everything you do in fundraising takes staff time and budget resources so you need to take that into account. Perhaps your test generate a few modest gifts; if so, you might decide that the investment/return on this initiative is not worthwhile. Or, perhaps it did quite well, in which case you might decide to sustain and expand the program if sufficient new honoree donors are generated each year.

      You can design a test like this or one that compares a test group with a control group where the latter group does not receive the test modification. It is always advantageous to do this and the result, even if it is not profitable, is very worthwhile. Sometimes tests tell you not to do something which saves you time and money going forward. At other times, your idea could be the beginning of something exciting and profitable. Either way, testing is a smart business activity.

Leave a Comment