We expect that people in certain professions will deal with human mortality on a regular basis—doctors and health care professionals, hospice volunteers, clergy, etc. However, when you tell someone you’ve just met that you work in fund development, their first thoughts of your job probably do not include images of visiting donors in hospitals, or all too often attending donors’ funerals.
But for those in planned gift development who work with older individuals, dealing with people who are nearing the end of their days is an inevitable part of our work. Unfortunately, we see many donors become ill and pass away, and the longer we are in one position, the truer that becomes. We will also be working with the spouses and other survivors of donors who have died.
How do you learn to handle the grief associated with the death of donors who have become your friends? And what should you know about the grief that surviving loved ones may be feeling when their loved one passes away?
Losing a friend
In the role of gift planner, becoming close to donors is a natural part of building relationships. As you assist someone with planning what may be the final gifts of their lifetime, you likely learn some of the most intimate details of donors’ lives—their financial situation, their family dynamics, their personal dreams and aspirations, and their value system. Much like other advisors such as attorneys or trust officers, gift planners build a high level of trust with donors.
In addition to becoming one of a donor’s trusted advisors, a gift planner may also form long-lasting, deep friendships with the supporters of their organization or institution. A gift planner and donor share something very important—a mutual interest in the goals and future success of a charitable organization they believe in. When such a friend passes away, grief is only natural.
For Leslie Davidson, senior philanthropic advisor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for 24 years, handling the grief that comes with her job is never easy because “you do get very close to some donors.” But she has a few suggestions for fellow development officers when it comes to managing grief.
“If you are aware that a donor is terminally ill, being able to have a final meeting with a donor can help you cope with losing them,” Ms. Davidson says. “That way you have an opportunity to tell them how much you care about them. It’s important to let them know how much we appreciate them while they are still with us.
“I also manage my grief by sharing stories about the person I’ve lost with others. Relating stories of the donor’s generosity helps me celebrate the memory of the friend I miss. I also like to send a tribute card to the donor’s family.”
Interacting with those in mourning
While gift planners are dealing with their own grief when donors pass away, they will often be called upon to work with the donors’ bereaved loved ones. The family members may be in one of a number of stages of grief—disbelief, anger, acceptance, yearning, and depression are common. The duration of each stage differs depending on the person.
When communicating with grieving loved ones, development professionals must be prepared for a variety of behaviors, from uncharacteristic emotional outbursts to withdrawal or an unwillingness to express any emotion. Being prepared for unexpected behaviors is crucial.
“A colleague and I had a visit scheduled with a donor whose husband had just passed away a couple of months earlier,” Ms. Davidson says. “The donor called the day before the visit and very gruffly told us not to come. She was very short with us, which was not like her at all. But we realized she was in the anger phase of her grief, and she needed to vent. Later, when we talked with her, she apologized, and said she had just needed some time alone.”
Ms. Davidson notes that it is important to recognize such cues and respect the family’s wishes. “If they don’t want to see you or talk right then, send them a note,” she advises. “Just let them know you care.”
Remember that when donors include a charity as part of their estate plans, donors are, in effect, elevating the charitable interest to the status of family member. When donors pass on and their gifts are realized, part of the role of the development officer can be to share their survivors’ natural grief and help celebrate their loved one’s life through gratitude for their gifts and the ways in which they have enriched the life of the charitable institution.