How Do You Find Out that a Donor has Died?

Now I know that this is a bit of a morbid topic, but one that has been coming up pretty regularly for me this year.  During my tenure at International House, I have noticed a bit of a strange trend among the survivors of my organization’s alumni donors — they seem to choose NOT to notify us of the donor’s death until many years later (which is always hard to stay on top of when you have tens of thousands of donors, and a significant percentage of them outside of the United States).

With that introduction out of the way, I must share with you a unique story that recently happened and made me really think about how the families of donors notify our organizations of their passing.  Last week while excitedly opening that day’s responses to our spring appeal, I opened an envelope that I assumed was just a notification that an alumnus had moved and had not left his/her forwarding address.  However, I soon found myself looking at a copy of an alumna’s death certificate — without a note from a survivor or anything.  Now for those of you who don’t know, I have been researching my family history for almost 20 years, so I know death certificates very well.  After getting over the surprise of receiving a death certificate of someone to whom I am not related, my mind immediately went to concerns about identity theft (as the certificate has the alumna’s full name, the names of her parents, birth and death dates, home address, Social Security number, etc.).  Did this well-meaning relative assume that the easiest way to let us know to remove this person from our mailing list was to send a copy of the death certificate, so that we would know it is official?

I know that there are the normal ways to notify organizations: a short note or e-mail asking that the person be removed from the mailing lists (ideally with a date of death for tracking purposes), reading about it in the local newspapers and/or other publications, or receiving notification of an estate or a trust to which your organization is a beneficiary.

What’s the strangest way that you have learned of a donor’s death?

P.S.  My organization has recently purchased one of the various services that will use your donor database to comb through public records and determine who has died; I am looking forward to making this a regular part of our data cleanup strategies.

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5 Replies to “How Do You Find Out that a Donor has Died?”

  1. Ha! This is such a great topic because it is so important for organizations!

    At my first internship they had me making calls to donors to update their information. More than quite a few of them had passed away. At 19 and with no professional experience to speak of at the time, I was hardly capable of handling those awkward moments smoothly!

    I’m hoping that org has since adopted a similar public records-searching service rather than just sticking inexperienced interns on it.

    1. Sarah,

      I also hope that org has found one of the services to help them manage their donor database instead of making phone calls. I cannot imagine how onerous it is to call every donor to update his/her contact info! Thanks for your comment.

  2. Dan:

    As we’ve discussed on twitter, I experienced this awkwardness recently. I had sent an invitation to a donor for an upcomin event. This gentleman had donated within the last calendar year. I followed up my invitation with a phone call. When I asked for the man, his wife said, “You’ll have to call 1-800-HEAVEN”. I felt awful. After an awkward silence I told her I am terribly sorry for her loss, and she asked me to please remove his name from our list.

    Needless to say, my organziation could benefit from the service your org purchased. And while it may be a morbid thought, with the aging of baby-boomers, this issue may become more prevalent in years to come.

  3. Hi Dan,

    All this talk of donors dying brings to mind my favorite topic: planned giving. Of course, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll hear about every donor who passes away, but probate notices and similar items will always let you know if a donor is gone forever but still remembered you.

  4. Having worked in various nonprofits, especially one that had older donors (hospital for joint replacements) there is always a possibility that this news can be on the end of a phone call or direct mail response. I was usually ready at least to say that s/he had been such a wonderful supporter, and wanted to know what a difference s/he had made to our hospital. AND that I understood and we wanted to update the records and apologized if the call was upsetting. (Having received such calls when my mom died when I was young, it can be rather shocking.)

    On the other side, at another org, we once “resurrected” a donor who had been marked deceased! And she started again as an annual donor!

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