Maximize Memorials for a Lasting Influence

By Katelyn Quynn

Charitable organizations are quick to recognize that some of their greatest donors are those who want to make memorial gifts in honor of a loved one. Professional planning advisors often play a key role in helping make that happen.

Many future donors who are financially able, and philanthropically inspired, want to see something good come from a tragic event. Completing a gift often helps the donor through the grieving process.

Donors may want to give to a charitable endeavor to remember a wife or mother who lost her battle with breast cancer, a loving friend who died in a tragic automobile accident, or a son or daughter killed during military action. Individuals who want to make memorial gifts in honor of a loved one represent some of an organization's greatest potential donors.

Defining a Memorial Gift

A memorial gift is a gift made at an individual's death, that benefits a charitable organization preselected by the deceased or the deceased's family or friends. "In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Specified Organization," is a memorial designation often seen in an obituary. This type of memorial giving results in small gifts—often $25 to $100 gifts—that are received by the named organization for a short time following the individual's death. Sadly, after acknowledgement by the charitable organization and the family, the relationship often ends.

Less common, but still often seen at many nonprofit organizations, are gifts created at a loved one's death by a loving spouse, parent, child, other family members, friends or groups of grieving individuals, like co-workers.

These gifts are larger gifts ($25,000 to $1 million or more) that take many forms and require patience, expertise and savvy by the organization and any affiliated professional advisors involved in the process.

Donors who make these larger memorial gifts often, but not always, approach the charitable organization on their own and have a very specific idea about how they wish to make their gift. The resulting gift, after discussion with advisors, may or may not be what donors initially envisioned.

What Else Motivates the Donor to Give?

Besides wanting to honor the deceased, a donor can be motivated by other reasons to make a substantial memorial gift to a charitable organization.

It is helpful to determine what else, if anything, a donor may hope to accomplish by making this gift. Uncovering additional motivations helps affiliated advisors determine the real potential size of the gift, how the gift should be made, and how best to cultivate the donor and celebrate the gift.

The following types of donor motivations should be considered when working with a substantial memorial gift donor:
  • Purely Philanthropic. The gift is being made by a donor who purely wants to remember the deceased and may want to make the gift anonymously. A rare type of donor, this person acts selflessly and from the heart. Allied professionals involved in developing the gift need to listen closely and follow the donor's wishes regarding the gift. This type of donor already knows exactly how the gift should be implemented to meet family wishes.
  • Family Substitute. The donor is alone in the world, perhaps as the childless spouse of the deceased. This person will likely appreciate interaction with the charitable organization, during the grieving process and beyond, as part of an extended family.
  • Social Standing/Prestige. The donor hopes to gain some prestige, either with one individual or a group of people, by making the gift. The donor may enjoy some media coverage for the gift and a celebration that will allow the donor to be recognized.
  • Assurance Policy. If a donor seems motivated by the expectation, then he or she will be assured of special consideration by the receiving organization. It is an advisor's role to review any ground rules that apply to VIP treatment, especially if preferential treatment might jeopardize some of the tax benefits.

Dealing With Emotions Associated With Loss

  • Sadness

    . Professional giving advisors who deal with individuals and families making meaningful memorial gifts are likely to encounter a potential range of emotion and should be prepared to show empathy. Sadness and grief are the most common emotions. If the advisor has personally experienced a loss, he or she can build rapport by sharing his or her personal experiences.

  • Anger

    . Some donors will want to share their anger with their advisor—anger over the loss of a loved one or about the medical care or lack thereof received by the deceased, especially if the charitable organization is a hospital. The best way to manage this type of emotion is to act as a sounding board and then refocus the donor on the positive, reminding him or her of the good the gift will do and how it will help future patients.

  • Confusion/Uncertainty

    . During a time of mourning, individuals often struggle to adjust to their new situation—life without their loved one. Depending upon age, health and relationship to the deceased, some individuals deal with this better than others. It may be difficult for the donor to concentrate on the gift options, especially if not much time has passed since the death.

Many professional advisors find that the gift option the donor initially wanted is not the gift option that is finalized. This seems to be especially true for naming opportunities. In the beginning, family members sometimes shy away from having something named after the deceased. They may feel embarrassed about this idea or might be unwilling to share their grief in public. Over time, however, a naming opportunity can be the perfect way to create a lasting tribute to the deceased, and many locations at charitable organizations bear the names of loved ones memorialized by friends and family.

Working With Family Members

In addition to working with a range of emotions, memorial gifts often include working with more than one family member throughout the gift process. This presents an interesting challenge for the most experienced advisors. They often have to handle multiple personalities, emotions and ideas for the gift, including type of gift and its ultimate amount.

Try to include all relevant family members, but first, and very importantly, determine which individual is the true decision maker. Work closely with that individual to narrow the giving decision. Listen as family members express their own remembrance of the deceased and any symbolism that might be shown through the chosen gift.

Fortunately, a significant memorial gift can allow participation from many family members at different financial levels. If the gift is an outright naming opportunity, all family members can give at various amounts and with different assets such as cash, securities or mutual funds. Each family member can take a charitable income tax deduction based on the size of his or her gift, and all have the opportunity to be involved and celebrate the memory of the deceased.

Types of Gifts

A memorial gift takes many forms and is as varied as each donor who makes the gift. Ultimately, the charitable organization wants to make the donor feel good about the gift and how the deceased is honored. The following are a few examples of typical memorial gifts.

  • Naming Opportunities

    . Many donors like to honor a loved one by placing the deceased's name on a plaque in a location that will memorialize him or her in a permanent, public way. It is not atypical to name a building, center, wing, floor, elevator, waiting room, patient room, classroom or other space. Naming a building, wing or floor is usually the highest-value gift option at most charitable organizations, and the actual level varies with each organization. With such a permanent remembrance, the donor and family can revisit the location and witness the good the gift has done.
  • Chair or Professorship

    . At academic institutions, a chair or professorship is often one of the highest honors and levels of gift options, usually in the $2 million to $3 million range. Donors who make significant memorial gifts can name a professorship and have it benefit a department or area connected to the deceased. For example, if the deceased was a classics professor, a chair could be created in the classics department, focusing on a particular area of study. Or, if the deceased respected a physician in the hospital's cancer center, a chair could be created in the cancer department, named for the deceased and held by the physician being honored for the benefit of his or her area of research.
  • Endowed Funds

    . Endowed funds are wonderful gift options to suggest to a donor who is interested in creating a memorial gift. An endowed fund can be created for various amounts depending on the organization (e.g., $10,000, $25,000, etc.), can be named for the deceased and continues in perpetuity. It can benefit any area at the charitable organization and typically pays about 4-5 percent of the principal amount in the fund to the recipient. Once the fund is created, family members and friends can add to it at any time and may want to build the fund by making an additional gift on the anniversary of the deceased's death or in lieu of holiday presents or other significant dates in the family. Endowed funds help keep a memory alive and can keep a family together over time.
  • Other Options

    . The development officer should offer a variety of gift options to the donor and work with him or her to find an option that accomplishes the donor's wishes in a tax-efficient manner.

    The gift can take the form of an outright gift of cash, securities or mutual funds. Or it may be a life income gift such as a charitable gift annuity, deferred gift annuity or charitable remainder trust. Other gestures could include a bequest in the donor's will, a private foundation named in memory of the deceased that makes gifts to a favorite charitable organization of the deceased, a supporting organization that benefits select charities or a donor advised fund that benefits a number of public charitable organizations.

    The type of gift option the donor chooses will be based on the size of the donor's gift, the number of charitable organizations the donor wants to support and the donor's potential need for income or more lasting control over his or her money.

Celebrate the Gift

Many memorial donors are comfortable with having the charitable organization celebrate their gift. Even though the gift was made in honor of someone no longer living, the gift can bring a sense of togetherness, closure and satisfaction to a donor and family. A tasteful ceremony held by the charitable organization can serve to remember and celebrate life.

Real-Life Examples

Philanthropic gifts made in memory of a child are particularly memorable. One gift involved a student studying abroad for a semester who was killed in a plane crash. The student's uncle represented the family, as the parents were too grief-stricken to talk with the receiving organization. The uncle acted on their behalf to create an endowed fund. Once advisors involved in the process were able to meet directly with the parents, the gift was completed. This is an excellent example of learning to identify the real decision maker who is most able and willing to complete the gift process.

Another memorial gift was made by the wife of a young father who was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City. The bereaved widow decided to name a reading room in the local library for her husband as a way to memorialize him for his young children. The gift allowed the widow to make a meaningful contribution to the town and connected her more closely with the community, which helped her to adjust to widowhood. This donor found so much satisfaction in making her gift that she now plans to create a private foundation that helps families affected by acts of terrorism.

Throughout the process of establishing memorials with a lasting influence, the caring planning advisor must be conscious of the emotions and intentions involved. This can often come at a difficult time in a donor's life, and extreme sensitivity is required. But the end result is one of generosity and satisfaction that a loved one's legacy will be passed to future generations and transforms the blow of a painful loss into a sense of calm and peace through the spirit of giving.

About the Author

Katelyn Quynn is the executive director of development, planned and major gifts for the Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of planned giving for the Partners Healthcare System, acting as a consultant to the system's eight affiliate hospitals.

Katelyn is a past president of the Planned Giving Group of New England and served on the board of directors of the National Committee on Planned Giving where she was one of the founders of the NCPG Journal of Gift Planning. Katelyn is a board member of Charitable Gift Planning News and Charitable Accord and testified before the United States Congress for the successful passage of the Philanthropy Protection Act of 1995. She was named Planned Giving Professional of the Year by Planned Giving Today. In 2003, she received the David M. Donaldson Distinguished Service Award from the Planned Giving Group of New England.

Katelyn is co-author of "Planned Giving: Management, Marketing and Law, Second Edition," published by John Wiley and Sons, winner of AFP's 2000 Staley/Robsham/Ryan/St. Lawrence Prize for Research and CASE's John Grenzebach Research Award for 2000. And she is co-author of Wiley's "Invest in Charity: A Donor's Guide to Charitable Giving," "Planned Giving for Small Nonprofits" and "Planned Giving Workbook."

She holds a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and a law degree from Boston University School of Law.

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