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.
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.
How to Improve In Memoriam Acknowledgements
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Chief, Palliative Care Medicine
University of Michigan/IUPUI Panel Study