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Dealing with death

publication date: Mar 15, 2017
author/source: Kathryne Cardwell

Kathryne CardwellSome years ago, as a Planned Giving Officer at the University of Manitoba, I had the privilege of meeting a special lady I’ll call Mrs. B. Over lunches and afternoon tea, Mrs. B. shared stories about her childhood in former Yugoslavia, resistance work during World War II, career as a chemical engineer and travels with her beloved husband. Our planned giving team members were blessed to have a close relationship with her for several years.

Mrs. B. passed away in 2012 at the age of 74. Her death hurt. We missed her terribly.

Sadly, to receive a planned gift you must first experience a loss, and the more robust your program becomes, the more you will experience this loss. Because we develop deep and meaningful relationships with our donors, it’s natural to grieve when we lose them.

So how do we manage? Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years—which start while our special people are still with us.

Honour your donors during their lifetimes

It’s common to regret the things you didn’t say or do for a loved one when that person dies. It’s the same for those donors to whom we are close.

We like to say that we thank planned giving donors during their lifetimes because we can’t thank them when they die. So thank them sincerely. Make sure they know you’ll take care of their legacies. Update them on your organization and news in your field. Visit. Stay for a second cup of tea. Wish them happy birthday.

When I moved to my role at The Winnipeg Foundation in 2015, I found that our role as a community foundation positioned us to learn about a lot of wonderful community activities and initiatives. We can personalize our donor stewardship by sharing news with donors that really piques their interest.

Taking care of your donors during their lifetimes goes a long way towards comforting you when they are gone.

Cultivate relationships with the family

Nothing honours your donor more than taking care of their cherished legacy. Showing the donor’s family how the donor made a difference and that his or her wishes were met will comfort you.

Not only that, there may be areas in which you can be of assistance. The family may want to talk at the funeral about their loved one’s involvement with your organization, or have mourners make donations to your organization in lieu of sending the family flowers. It’s much easier if you already have a rapport with the family, and you’ll feel better when you can genuinely tell the family how much you cared about their loved one.

Acknowledge grief

Death is part of life and grief is part of death. Acknowledge your sadness. Feel your pain. Just because your relationship with a donor had a professional foundation doesn’t mean you can’t mourn that donor as a person about whom you cared.

On that note, extend the courtesy to other staff members who have said goodbye to a donor. Don’t just concentrate on the development officers. Your receptionists and assistants will get to know donors as well, and some of them may feel sad after a loss, too.

Honour your donor’s life

When Mrs. B. died, the people who knew her gathered for coffee one afternoon. We told stories, recalled her advice and acknowledged our own sadness. 

From then forward, we did the same when we lost others. It was our way of helping ourselves and recognizing that donors were more to us than just supporters of our organization.

Just one reminder—even though the person is gone, continue to honour their privacy wishes. Don’t share stories or personal details with anyone or in any circumstance that would have made the donor uncomfortable while alive.

Finally…take care of that person’s legacy

Mrs. B. left her entire estate to the university to fund stem cell research. When the first portion of her substantial bequest arrived, we agreed that we would rather have her with us instead of the gift. The money didn’t seem to matter at that time.

But it did matter. Mrs. B. thought carefully about what to accomplish with her legacy gift. Her gift was made with assets it took a lifetime to accumulate. She trusted the university to steward her legacy.

When your donors pass away, it might fall to you to advocate for them. Your organization might want to use a bequest for something other than what the donor instructed (yes, this happens even when the legal Will specifically states the use of the gift). There may be no one else to recognize the donor or report to the family how the gift made a difference.

It’s not just our responsibility to make sure the gift is used as the donor intended—it’s a comfort. You can rest easy knowing that you put your donor’s legacy in action as you were instructed.

Mrs. B. is gone but her legacy is in place today. We still think of her and the difference she continues to make.

Kathryne Cardwell, B.A., CFRE joined The Winnipeg Foundation in 2015 as Gift Planning Associate. She enjoys her role immensely because of her love for her home city of Winnipeg, her amazing colleagues, and her passion for helping philanthropic individuals create meaningful legacies. 

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