SOLICITING MEMORIALS: Understanding the Need to Give in the Wake of Tragedy
Sheryl and I lost our only grandchild ten years ago this month. As they so often say, “You can eventually get beyond that kind of tragedy, but you never really get over it.” Even as I write this story, the sense of loss is still very real.
On the morning of April 2, 2005 our son, Barrett, called to say that Liz was going into labor. With the irrational exuberance of first-time grandparents, Sheryl and I raced to the hospital. Just as we were arriving, Barrett called again. Unable to say a word, he finally just gave me a room number. We went up, walked into the room, and saw Barrett—a college linebacker and a real man’s man—bent over in tears. I can still feel his big arms wrapping around me as he whispered in my ear, “Elijah is dying.” We had known for about a month that there were some complications with Liz’s pregnancy but still couldn’t believe this was happening to us.
The hospital brought in three nurses to be with us, each who had lost a child of their own. Our hearts were just breaking for our children and for our first grandchild as he struggled for life. Some of you have lost loved ones unexpectedly and understand the pain. At 8:45 that evening Barrett and I held Elijah as he took his last breath.
They took Elijah out of the room for about an hour then brought him back. They let Liz give him a bath and put his pajamas on him. We got to rock him, holding him in a quilt that was made by a mother who had lost her son six months earlier. I know that may sound somewhat morbid, and I hope it’s not offensive to you. But it was just our way of saying goodbye.
THREE WEEKS LATER
Several weeks later Barrett and Liz went back to the hospital, returning to that nursing station. “Liz and I want to do something to express our appreciation for what you all did for us,” Barrett said. He had a check made out to the hospital for $25,000.
The nurses resisted, “No, no; we were doing what we were trained to do. We’re sorry that we didn’t have a positive result. Really, you don’t need to do anything.”
So, Barrett and Liz went downstairs to the foundation office and spoke with a gentleman who I have known really well for over 30 years. They said again, “We want to do something in Elijah’s memory and to express our appreciation.”
Even though $25,000 was a lot for them at that time, they sincerely wanted to make that gift and were a little disappointed that it hadn’t happened as they had imagined.
He replied, “No, I’ve known your dad forever, and he’s already done a lot of good work for us.”
And so, Barrett and Liz came home with check in hand. Even though $25,000 was a lot for them at that time, they sincerely wanted to make that gift and were a little disappointed that it hadn’t happened as they had imagined.
My good friend at the foundation is a wonderful and effective nonprofit executive. In this unique situation, however, it seems that our close relationship had made it harder, not easier, for him to accept the gift. Barrett and Liz felt the need to give far more than the hospital needed to receive because their gift was not about the hospital, the doctors, or the nurses. And, it was not about anything I had previously done as a consultant to help them.
It was all about Elijah.
SIX WEEKS LATER
Barrett, Liz, and our oldest son, Rob, were having dinner with us one evening. About six weeks had passed, and we were all still hurting. It was Rob who introduced the challenge.
“Dad, you know that hospital you love that takes care of children?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Their gift was not about the hospital, the doctors, or the nurses. And, it was not about anything I had previously done as a consultant to help them. It was all about Elijah.
“You know that gentleman you’ve worked with up there at the foundation?”
“I think we should make a large gift to that children’s hospital.”
Rob’s proposal was a staggering amount for us—one that would require a series of current and future gifts. It was one of those ideas that kind of makes you gasp and go weak in the knees. After the initial shock, the thought came to mind, “Who is WE?” I knew neither he nor Barrett had that kind of money. But “we” accepted the challenge and began to move forward with a gift that was unprecedented for our family.
TAKEAWAY FOR FUNDRAISERS
The great lesson from our greatest loss is that unprecedented gifts often come from donors who have a felt need to give in response to their own personal tragedy or triumph. In other words, their motivation to give back comes from their most poignant life experiences. Sometimes it’s a single event, like the death of a child, while other times it’s an ongoing series of events, like a struggle with heath issues or the climb from poverty to prominence.
Unprecedented gifts often come from donors who have a felt need to give in response to their own personal tragedy or triumph.
Many fundraisers, even seasoned ones, are hesitant to solicit gifts in the immediate aftermath of a personal tragedy. I was recently asked if I would have been offended if the hospital had solicited a memorial gift for Elijah three weeks after we lost him. My immediate answer was, “No, I would not have been offended at all—that is, if it was done in the right way.”
In the last thirty-five years I have been involved with structuring thousands of memorial gifts for families. My approach follows several general principles:
1. My primary focus is always on donor (not organizational) needs. I talk to donors at length, hopefully enough to sense the focus and intensity of their need and desire to give. Often that desire and need is to memorialize loved ones as Sheryl and I have done for both my parents and for our grandson, Elijah.
2. I explain three or four ways the family could make that happen—the programs they could fund and the various ways to structure their gift.
3. I don’t suggest an amount. Initially, I’m just exploring the idea with them and planting a seed that I can cultivate.
4. I DO NOT try to “close.” That’s the one thing that would have offended me in the wake of our great loss. Give it some time, cultivate the relationship, and the idea will grow.
TEN YEARS LATER
Barrett and I went back to that hospital this month on what would have been Elijah’s tenth birthday. Of course, that meant revisiting the pain of our loss. Again, as they say, “We’ve gotten past the loss of a child but are not completely over it.” At the same time, we’ve never been more enthusiastic about what the doctors and nurses at that hospital are doing there each day. And we could not be happier about our family’s decision to give. How thankful we are now that our other son, Rob, stepped up and took the lead by proposing our family’s memorial to Elijah.
Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Copyright 2015, R. Edward Thompson