In lieu of flow­ers: how to write live­ly memo­r­i­al dona­tion thank-you letters

Are your in-memo­ri­am dona­tion thank-you let­ters des­tined for donor obliv­ion? This copy­writ­ing clin­ic looks to help you res­cue them from a fate worse than, well… death.

Written by
Lisa Sargent
May 21, 2012

Oh, the agony of the in-memoriam donation thank-you letter. Who’s related to whom? Who felt obligated to give? Is the deceased male or female? What did he mean to the giver? You’re tired just thinking about it, aren’t you? Plus, most memorial gifts require two thank yous: one to the giver and one to the family of the person being honoured. But being scared of a protocol faux pas is no excuse for sending a souless, dry, memorial donation thank-you letter. Or worse, not sending one at all. At least, not once you’ve taken a stroll through SOFII’s latest copywriting clinic on – you guessed it – how to write lively memorial donation thank-you letters. (To proceed directly to samples, click here.)

So there are three main challenges presented by in-memoriam donor thank yous. We’ll deal with them in turn, then I’ll offer a solution:

  1. Challenge 1: death is a delicate subject.
  2. Challenge 2: most memorial donations require two thank-you letters.
  3. Challenge 3: memorial donor stewardship beyond the first gift and thank you.

Challenge 1: death is a delicate subject.

And the subject of death is especially delicate for you, the writer. Why? Because most of you will have no idea what prompted the memorial donation in the first place. Was it sent ‘in lieu of flowers’, possibly from someone who didn’t know the deceased all that well and maybe even felt obligated? Or perhaps it was from a lifelong friend who is heartbroken beyond measure. The point is, usually, you just don’t know.

But all too typically, the default response is to send an in-memoriam donation thank you that’s generic as cardboard. This does not have to be you.

Solution 1: don’t wallow in propriety.

Instead, remember what it is that we would all want. We’d want to know that others are thinking of us and to have made a difference, especially after we die. Think of those elements that really connect with the reader: altruism, immortality, joy, recognition, compassion. Then, dear friends of SOFII, use these as the thinking behind the beginning of your thank-you letter and you’ll never again rely on the, ‘On behalf of’ opener that’s older than my Airedale Lucy.

Here’s an example from the greatest ‘how-to’ chapter ever on donor thank-you letters, chapter five of Penelope Burk’s Donor-Centered Fundraising (Burk & Associates Ltd, 2001), page 43:

‘At a time when you were remembering someone very dear to you, you also thought of others now living with terminal illness and extended your hand of support to them. On their behalf and from us… thank you.’ [Example one]

‘Whoa, Lisa!’ you cry. ‘That copy quite clearly says someone very dear to you. Look, I have no idea if they’re dear or not!’

True. So why not tweak it?

‘At a time when you were remembering another, you also thought of [the environment, stray kittens, homeless men and women, etc.]’

and so on.

See how easy that was?

Here is another way to begin your in-memoriam donation thank you, courtesy of my swipe file (and please say you keep a swipe file– when you need inspiration, one of the best things you can do is look at what other organisations are sending.):

‘Someone special thought of you today… and [the environment, stray kittens, homeless men and women, etc.] too. NAME recently made a kind gift in your name to ABC charity, in memory of NAME.’ [Example two]

Moving on.

Challenge 2: most memorial donations require two thank-you letters.

If you aren’t sending two thank-you letters, you’re only doing half your job. This question proves my point: Roy Jones makes a memorial gift in honour of his supervisor Stan’s mother.

Question: how many thank yous do you need?

Answer: two. One to Roy and one to Stan. But how to handle the copy for each?

Solution 2: apply basic common sense.

Using our example above, Stan could definitely receive the beginning of example two… and Roy? Well, he could get the, ‘At a time when you were remembering another’ copy. Warning – include the right details in each. To Stan, you need to mention his mum’s name and that Roy made a gift in her honour. To Roy, you need to mention you’ve sent a card letting Stan know about the kind donation.

Challenge 3: memorial donor stewardship beyond the first gift and thank you.

Memorial gifts are one and done, right? After all, someone only dies once. Not so fast.

The problem with repeat gifts and donor retention after a memorial gift is, I think, more due to the way nonprofits have historically approached memorial donors and less a result of any unwillingness on the part of donors. Consider this: after the memorial thank-you letter, these compassionate donors who really did think of a bigger cause as a way to honour someone’s memory are generally treated by nonprofits to…silence. A donor communications vacuum. The badlands of loyalty.

So, if we never communicate with memorial donors again, how can we have the foggiest notion of whether a lack of repeat gifts is due to unwillingness on their part? Think about it, there are plenty of timely and relevant ways to get in touch with both donors and families of the deceased after a memorial gift is made.

Can you welcome these new friends, even in their sorrow? Yes.

And can you make it heartwarming for them? Yes.

And can you start today? Yes.

Why not send a thoughtful covering letter with your welcome pack or regular newsletter that reflects the fact that you know this is the result of a memorial donation?

‘We thought you’d like to know about some of the wonderful things that have come about for [the environment, stray kittens, homeless men and women, etc.] in memory of YYYY, who will forever be remembered as a result of XXX’s recent gift.’

Having done that, I ask you, can’t these kind people then bathe happily in your regular donor communications stream? Yes.

Here’s another solution: the anniversary note.

Think back to challenge 1 and remember what we all want when we die: to have made a difference. So, at a bare minimum, you can send an anniversary note to honour the one year anniversary of the last gift. It can be easily modified to address both Stan and Roy in our earlier example. Here’s how:

To Stan our card reads: ‘On the anniversary of your loss’, then goes on to add a quick bit about how the memory of NAME lives on and what the gifts made in NAME’s honour accomplished over the past year. You might even be able to close by mentioning a giving opportunity (tactfully, gently).
To Roy: ‘Remembering your kindness one year later’. This is a thank you to Roy for his amazing act of kindness that, like Stan’s, goes on to talk about the great things the gift accomplished in memory of another. And this could also close with a relevant giving opportunity.

Lest we get cavalier about our newfound skills, I leave you with a warning in the form of a tragic, true story regarding anniversary memorial cards.

My mum was one of those people whose first name was indistinguishable from her last, like the late Bea Arthur (not my mum), or George Michael (also not my mum and – for the record – she laughed uncontrollably at all my jokes, even the dark ones).

One year after she passed away, I received a lovely anniversary card from the hospice where mum spent her last hours. It read:

‘Thinking of you and remembering your loved one on the anniversary of your loss.’ There was even a handwritten message.

I was delighted and honoured. Until...crushed. The people who eased my mother’s pain as she literally drew her dying breaths spelled her name wrong in the handwritten message. And they mixed her first name with her last, then tacked her middle initial at the end as part of it, I can only assume for good measure.

Heavy, woeful, heartbroken sigh. This was mum. Mum! I thought of sending a tribute gift, but didn’t. My advice? Checktwice – before you invoke the memory of the dead. Get your names straight. But first, proceed directly to the in-memoriam donation thank-you letter samples here. You’ll find plenty of practical tips on format, structure and more.

​The basics of donation thank yous: 101

In the memorial thank-you letter samples included with this clinic, I refer readers to the previous thank-you letter clinics, because they contain basic formatting tips you should be applying to all your thank yous. The list below contains the top ten. For more, refer to SOFII’s first donation thank-you letter clinic here.

  1. Personalise. Thank-you letters should not start with ‘Dear Friend.’
  2. Avoid design tricks. A thank you is from one person to another. No need for crazy bold fonts and underlining and italics.
  3. Consider font and format: serif for print, sanserif for electronic thank yous. (Although recent research says the latter isn’t necessarily the best.)
  4. Structure for readability: indent your paragraphs if possible. Keep all paragraphs at seven lines or less. Vary length of paragraphs, i.e. two lines, four lines, seven lines, one line. Use healthy page margins, justified left/ragged right.
  5. Keep it brief. One page, one side, is plenty.
  6. Use more ‘you’ than ‘we’. Focus your thank you on benefits and show the donor how he or she is helping.
  7. Use an engaging start. Just like a good fundraising appeal, you want to draw the reader into your thank you. Nothing says you have to start with ‘thank you’ or ‘on behalf of’.
  8. Add a contacts and update paragraph. How will the donor next hear from you – via a quarterly newsletter, annual report, what and when? And include a phone number and email they can use to contact you.
  9. Use a top-level signatory, president, CEO, etc.
  10. Add a PS. I’ve said it before: postscripts get read, even in emails. So use them to direct readers to your website, to extend an invitation to tour your facility, to update donors on a story in the appeal that prompted the gift. Get creative and always add a final thank you.

About the author: Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent (she/her) is head of Sargent Communications. She helps non-profits raise more money and keep more donors through better donor communications. A creative strategist and copywriter, Lisa works exclusively with non-profits on direct mail, email fundraising and donor care communications – acquisition appeals, annual reports, proposals, welcome packages, e-appeals, newsletters, thank you letters and more.

Lisa’s articles have been featured in Mal Warwick’s newsletter, FundRaising Success Magazine and The Agitator. Lisa also publishes The Loyalty Letter, a free e-newsletter for non-profit and charitable organisations read by subscribers around the world. Lisa has regularly contributed to SOFII over the years, including the wonderful thank you letter clinic, which you can read here.

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