How soon does the sorry window close?

July 9 2014 - Mark Phillips

When a friend or colleague is bereaved, it can be hard to know what to do or say.

The struggle to find the right words can even end up in avoidance; all because you don't want to upset them through saying the wrong thing.

The fact is, grieving people need to be allowed to be upset. They need to be allowed to come to terms with the death of someone they love. They need to be able to remember them in the way that helps the most.

And as a friend, one of the very worst things you can do, is to do nothing at all.

And what works on a personal level, also works for fundraising. Let me illustrate what I mean with a story about what happened to me when I made my first in-memoriam gift to charity.

When my mother died, instead of flowers, I asked for donations to be given to a major UK charity in her memory. After her funeral I sent the charity a four figure sum accompanied by a letter where I explained that I would be more than happy to give an additional gift after I had finished the administration of her estate.

In response, I received a very simple thank you that served to demonstrate that no one had actually read my letter. I never heard another word from them.

I have always wondered why. I couldn't have made it clearer that I would give again. I've sent them the odd gift over the years but It hasn't really made much difference. They don't seem to value me or my mother very much at all. As a result, they are at the bottom of my list, even though I still care about their work.

But there was an upside. This bad experience sparked an interest in in-memoriam giving.

To my mind, the more emotionally engaged in-memoriam donors can be some of the best donors that you'll ever have. They start with a connection to your cause, they have actively searched you out and, when treated well, have a lifetime value that significantly outweighs most other donors.

I couldn't understand why every charity wouldn't invest heavily in them and give them special treatment. So to find out if my experience was a one-off, back in 2012, Bluefrog undertook a mystery shopping exercise where we sent in-memoriam gifts to 67 household name charities. The results were eye-opening….

  • Six charities didn't do anything other than bank the cheque.
  • Three dropped us into the standard appeal cycle without saying thank you.
  • Twenty Nine (44%) sent just a single communication (usually a basic thank you).
  • Just four organisations were responsible for 25% of all communications received from all 67 over the following ten months.

It astonished me that my experience seemed to be normal.

So I contacted a few fundraisers to see why this potentially very valuable group of donors simply weren't being acknowledged.

I found that many fundraisers felt uncertain about what they should do after receiving an in-memoriam gift and erred on the side of caution. They didn't want to upset a bereaved relative with further requests for cash.

My own experience made me think that this approach might be a mistake so we spoke to a group of recent in-memoriam donors about how they felt about being asked for additional support.

You might be surprised to hear that every single one of the 130 people we interviewed said that they would be happy to be asked again. 

What concerned them was the timescale. As this chart shows, a few recommended asking six months after the initial gift. A third thought a year would be best with a small number stretching this period to two years.

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Most donors, however, couldn't suggest a fixed period. For them, it wasn't when you asked but why.

A communication was acceptable if it was relevant to them or the person they had lost. That's half the reason why so many people suggested waiting a year. They thought just after the anniversary of the death was a meaningful time to get back in touch. Others mentioned birthdays, anniversaries or even Christmas.

Memorial services were also important. Those that had attended a charity service spoke very highly of them. 

So how can we be sure when is the right time to get in contact again? The answer was actually suggested by many donors. 

We should ask them when they might be happy for the charity to get back in touch. This can actually be undertaken within the thank you process. Ideally on the telephone, but also as part of any written communication.

Without exception, all donors said that the in-memoriam gift was important to them. Because of this, they all felt comfortable talking about additional support when the time was right. 

We don't need to guess when the time is right. We simply allow the donors tell us.

The 'sorry window' varies for everyone. And, as Larry David found out, the implications for getting this wrong can be painful…

 You can find out what happened next here.

  • Fantastic post.

    I had a very similar experience to you when I lost someone and decided to give and fundraise in their memory. I received a totally impersonal response after writing and telling them where the money had come from and why I wanted to give it to them. So, like you, they are bottom of my list…

    Every time I get a mailing from them asking for a large sum of money it reminds me of the lack of interest shown in me at the point I was showing most interest in them.