Frontline fundraisers often ask our Client Experience Leaders for advice on donor relations. Here’s a recent example of a question we received: “Someone sends your organization a gift of $5,000 and attaches a note saying, “‘Please accept this gift in memory of [Name], who was a good friend of mine and loved your organization.'”

“How do you appropriately cultivate this person?”

First, you thank the person. Obvious, right? No. It’s not obvious, unfortunately. We cannot believe how often organizations fail to do this.

To help non-profits write appropriate thank you letters for people that give in memory of someone, our team uses the following template:

    • On behalf of [ORG NAME], I’d like to personally thank you for your incredibly generous gift in memory of NAME. I am both honored and grateful that you chose to support our mission in NAME’s memory. By honoring NAME you’re also helping us advance [lifesaving research] for so many other [men, women, and families]. I know giving can be personal, but if you’re willing to share more about NAME and how her life inspired your gift, I’d be honored to listen. Please know, I’m your contact here at [ORG NAME] should you ever need anything. My sole role is to ensure you understand what a huge difference your gift, in NAME’s memory, is making for millions of others. I look forward to hearing back from you.

I love this, because you are inviting the person who made the “in memory of” gift to engage with you about the person who inspired the gift. If they engage, you have an opportunity to find out if they are personally interested in your mission, or if they only gave the gift to memorialize someone.

Okay, now that you’ve properly thanked the person making the gift, you next need to explore if this person actually has any passion or interest in your organization. Notice that I didn’t call this person a donor. Calling them a donor isn’t appropriate yet.

Also, make sure you know your organization’s policy on memorial gifts. Some organizations we’ve worked with maintain a strict “do not ever put memorial gift givers into a major gift portfolio” policy. We don’t think that makes sense if the person actually does want to engage with you.

But, if the policy allows, the next thing you want to do is qualify this person, by reaching out to them much like you would in qualifying a donor for a portfolio. The “thank you” letter above is the first step to qualifying.

Now, if you find out the person made a gift several months (or even years) ago, and no one has reached out to to them except to send a thank you letter, you have an opportunity to report back. Tell the person how the gift made a difference. Then, seek to open up the conversation.

However, if the person making the gift tells you they do not wish to receive anything from the organization and that this is a one-time gift only, please honor that person’s wishes.

We have heard horror stories from people who have made memorial gifts. The organization dumps them right into its direct-mail stream, and then they receive ongoing, unwanted communication from the organization.

The point is, you have to be very careful and treat a memorial gift, and the person who made it, very carefully and with much dignity. While it’s possible that this person will not become a donor to your organization, treating them with respect, honor and dignity will ensure you have done all you can to inspire that person to continue supporting your mission.


This post originally appeared on the Passionate Giving Blog on August 23, 2021.