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With very simple techniques to get people thinking about making a memorial donation, you can simultaneously

  • raise money
  • strengthen the emotional tie between you and your donors
  • increase the visibility of your program

"We give people the option to donate in memory of or honor of, and make this known on the website and in the newsletter. When we do our mailings with the newsletter or an appeal, we put in a reply envelope with a place on the back of the envelope, under the flap, to dedicate the donation. Every time we send out, we get more and more back. Most are from the envelope."

A memorial gift is any gift that is designated to be in honor of or in memory of a person or animal. Often these gifts are made on the death of a loved one, either a person or animal. Another growing trend is to make a donation at any time when a gift would be given. Some online places facilitate wedding registries that list nonprofit organizations rather than traditional wedding gifts.

Managing Tributes

The American Animal Hospital Association Foundation receives 800 or more memorial gifts a month."Veterinary practices will have a client who has a pet that passes away. The vet then makes a memorial donation to the program in memory of the animal," explains Tamara Fox, a FundRaiser Select user and the person who takes care of the tribute donations at AAHA Foundation. "Some practices send in a huge lists of donations, some only do it for long time clients. A few come from pet owners themselves in honor of a pet who has died, say every year on the anniversary of the pet's death."

She says to deal with this volume of tributes, "being organized helps."

"Because of the purpose of the tribute, to memorialize, then timeliness is of the essence," says Fox. Clients who have lost a pet, "will appreciate the letter if it arrives within a short time of the death, but if it arrives later, when they have hopefully dealt with it, then it won't be as welcome."

Joan Young, a volunteer at Kairos Dwelling, and a FundRaiser Select user, says that the key to managing tributes is understanding that two different letters are usually sent: the normal acknowledgment letter to the donor, and then an additional letter, called the notification letter, that goes to the family member of the memorialized person.

Fox of AAHA sends out acknowledgment letters weekly, sometimes twice weekly. "I do them everyday or at least every other day. Everything is dated as it comes in, so if the week is coming to an end, then I make sure that they are done."

The letter that the pet owners receive is important. "We don't say how much money was sent. We try to emphasize the sentiment. We always start off with something about the importance of pets in people's lives. We also let them know about the Helping Pets Fund, what it does, and that their vet cares enough to make a gift, which is so important. It reinforces the bond between vet and client. We get a lot of feedback on the letter from pet owners and veterinarians that they like it."

AAHA also make reports to their trustees about the tributes income. "We use groupings a lot to get the information we need. For that codes are very important. We have developed codes to match all the reasons for giving. If a mailing goes out, then we can track gifts that come in from that. For the tributes, some practices give in different ways. They may send us a list of memorial gifts, or they may purchase a card in advance and send it later to whoever needs it."

Getting the Word Out

Most organizations find that they don't need to make a huge effort to bring in at least some memorial gifts. Many programs do it very simply, by adding a place under the flap of the return envelope for people to designate the gift in memory or in honor of someone. Often names of people who have been memorialized are published in a newsletter. Word of mouth is also effective. When a person receives a gift that honors them, they may then pass on the word. Other donors who enjoy making gifts in honor or memory of loved ones will often let others know that this option exists.

Reply Envelope for Tributes

Example of reply envelope text. This is the First Witness reply envelope, and the text is on the back under the flap. It has generated much of their memorial gift donations.

Young, of Kairos Dwelling, says that a large percentage of their income comes from tributes. Kairos Dwelling houses terminally ill people.

"We let people know about the memorial program through our newsletter, which goes out twice a year. The reply envelope that goes out with the newsletter also makes it possible to donate the gift in someone's name." Sometimes, in an obituary, the family will designate Kairos Dwelling as the place to give memorial donations.


One challenge of tributes gifts is that the income, as well as the time involved to process them, is hard to predict. At Kairos Dwelling, when someone dies, "in some instances there are no responses and in others, 30 to 40 tributes," says Young. In the case of a newspaper obituary, "if they said to donate to Kairos Dwelling then we get a lot of donations." Data entry may take no time at all, or up to 4 hours.

"It's erratic," Lindberg of First Witness, agrees. "It is hard to set fund raising goals. So we don't set a sum."

Tender Loving Care

An aspect of tributes fundraising which is integral to its power, is the emotional aspect. "Giving a gift in memory of my dad: it makes me feel good, it makes my family feel good, and you are giving to a cause you believe in," says Lindberg. "It's all about making your donors feel connected to your program and that just keeps them coming back."

Young agrees. "Our Executive director signs every letter. She writes a personal note on them."

At First Witness, "all our thank you's are handwritten," says Lindberg. "We get a lot of positive feedback about that. Every gift we get, the board makes a followup call." They are able to do that because, even though First Witness is a small organization, " only three full time people here" they have a large and enthusiastic board.

Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained

When asked what advice she had to someone who was wanting to start a new tributes program, Lindberg said, "just start– just get it out there. What makes an impact is when people see it in our newsletter. It sparks people. Then they pull out the envelope and see that they can do it too."

Growth Path

FundRaiesr Basic does not have the features needed to manage tributes well. If you are receiving more than a few tributes a year, consider upgrading to another of the FundRaiser programs.

Sasha Daucus is Newsletter and Web Content Editor for FundRaiser Software. Through her work at FundRaiser, she volunteers as forum host and facilitator for TechSoup, a nonprofit technology help site. Outside of work, she volunteers for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. In her free time she enjoys nature photography and listening to world music from the Mediterranean region.