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[ASK AN EXPERT] How to Publicly Recognize Memorial Gifts

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who wants advice on how to honor, credit, and recognize their memorial gifts

Dear Charity Clairity,

Many times when an alumni passes away, their family will choose to direct funds to our school. How should those donations be credited on our Honor Roll of Donors? 

In the past, we’ve listed the “so and so memorial fund” for the total amount given in the appropriate category. Should the amount any particular donor has given to this memorial fund also be added to their cumulative giving? This would basically give credit to the same gift twice on the Honor Roll. Or should this amount not be counted toward their cumulative giving amount?

— Don’t Want Double Trouble

Dear Don’t Want Double Trouble,

My first reaction to this question is “why not give double credit?”  

I don’t see the “trouble” here. Your Honor Roll of Donors isn’t a legal contract. The only time I would worry about double crediting is when you’re sending letters to donors for tax purposes.

This isn’t one of those times.

Here’s where “double trouble” could legitimately come into play: A donor who gives to you through a donor-advised fund has already received an acknowledgement from the DAF and a tax deduction. You don’t want to send a second letter thanking them for their “tax deductible” donation. By the time you receive the recommended DAF distribution, there are no more tax consequences attached. You don’t want to imply to your donor they can double dip; this is just confusing to them and their tax preparer. 

However, when it comes to acknowledging this donation in your Honor Roll, there’s no reason you can’t list it under the donor’s individual name (Jane and Joe Doe) and under the name of the Fund (Vanguard Charitable Fund). I would simply count up all gifts from the Vanguard Fund and list them under that category. 

The same logic applies to memorial gifts IF your practice is to list memorial gifts separate from other gifts. I’m going to also recommend you count gifts by a donor within a fiscal or calendar year towards their total giving that year. Don’t, however, include payments that are not considered tax deductible donations, such as raffle tickets, auction purchases, or the fair market value ascribed to an event. 

Remember, from your donor’s perspective, all donations count. I’ve had donors routinely give $100 as tribute gifts every time a friend dies or when they celebrate a birthday or anniversary. This could easily add up to $1,000+ over the course of the year in addition to the $1,000 they already donate. They certainly wouldn’t have been happy campers if I had only listed them as giving $1,000 donors when they knew full well they’d donated $2,000. You don’t want to inadvertently send the message that memorial gifts don’t “count.”

Here are some options for a $1,000 memorial gift from Jane and Joe Doe. Ordinarily $500 annual donors, this would lift them to the $1,500 donor level. 

1. Memorial donations listed separately, alphabetically, but not by gift amount.

Under $1,500 individual giving level: 

“Jane and Joe Doe”

Under “Memorial Gifts” alphabetically: 

Jane and Joe Doe” or “Jane and Joe Doe in memory of JJ Doe

Personally, I’d stick with simply listing their name and not the particulars because it becomes too labor intensive and takes up a lot of space (especially if it’s a hard copy listing). If they make multiple memorial and/or tribute gifts over the course of the year, just list them once under the “Memorials” gift category. 

2. Memorial donations counted with other donations; donors listed alphabetically within the appropriate giving category.

Under $1,500 individual giving level: 

“Jane and Joe Doe*”

If you wish, you can also include an asterisk after donors’ names who’ve made a memorial donation along with their regular donations. In this case you’d simply add a footnote at the bottom of your Honor Roll with language like: *includes a memorial or tribute donation.

I’m not a fan of counting all the donations received in memory of a particular individual and publishing this information. It sets up an awkward competition and may make some families feel bad. It’s fine if, after a period of time has elapsed, you want to let the family know the total amount given in memory of their loved one. Since they won’t have any other family with which to compare, this should make them feel good. And it gives you an opportunity to check in with them, see how they’re doing, and once again express your gratitude.

In general, I prefer to err on the side of thanking and acknowledging more often than less often. I really don’t think you can show too much gratitude.

Thanks for this question,

Charity Clairity

P.S. The way you are listing gifts currently is a bit of apples and oranges. The “so and so memorial fund” is not a donor, yet you’re mixing it into donor listings. This also sets up a bit of an uncomfortable popularity contest if some memorial funds receive oodles of donations while others receive fairly few. How good will that make the family of the deceased feel when they see the listing? Chances are they won’t exactly feel honored—and that’s the purpose of a Donor Honor Roll, right? Just food for thought! 

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