How to Talk About Death With Your Donors: 3 Nonprofits’ Strategies

Stelter Client Strategist Kasi Zieminski returns to the blog to continue exploring everyone’s (not so) favorite topic…

In my previous blog, we talked about talking about death—a challenging, yet important, part of both our planned giving work and our day-to-day lives. Today, let’s look at how three Stelter clients are engaging in this conversation with their constituents and communities.

Two Things Can Be True

Cancer Straight Talk from MSK is hosted by Dr. Diane Reidy-Lagunes, gastrointestinal oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). The series “brings together patients and experts to have straightforward, evidence-based conversations…with a mission to educate and empower patients and their family members.”

In episode 1, “Facing the End of Life,” Dr. Reidy-Lagunes has an intimate and powerful conversation with “one of her dearest patients,” Christine. At only 26 years old, Christine was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

“She experienced ongoing cycles of fear and doubt, hope and courage, faith and love,” Dr. Reidy-Lagunes shares. After “three major surgeries, three years of toxic chemo and grueling radiation,” they made the difficult decision to stop all therapy. Christine died eight days after their podcast conversation via Zoom.

“I hope that people put in situations like mine can focus on finding their way through with grace and poise and finding whatever bit of happiness pushes you through,” Christine said.

MSK chaplain Brian Kelly shared a special bond with Christine and gave the eulogy at her graveyard service. In episode 33, “What Makes Life Meaningful?”, Kelly calls gratitude “one of the great secrets of the cancer world.”

He advises patients, “Try to transform the thought of, ‘How is it that I want to be dying?’ to ‘How is it that I want to live? What is it that I want and can get from these moments, as precious as they are?’” As difficult as that can be, Kelly says that “patients at the end of life have an extraordinary capacity to find hope in things.”

In episode 18, “Gratitude, Grief and Why You Don’t Have to Choose,” Dr. Wendy Lichtenthal, clinical psychologist at MSK, shares that “cancer is an ‘and’ experience.” I’d say the same is true about life in general.

“We need to recognize that human beings have the capacity to feel more than one thing at once,” she explains. “That we can be sad and grateful. We can be relieved and yet scared. We can be angry and appreciative.”

Talking about death can be hard—and, incredibly meaningful. Two things can be true.

>> Consider this: MSK occasionally repurposes podcast content like this in their planned giving newsletters. How could you do something similar, in the context of your mission, messaging, and planned giving marketing? 

Reframing the Conversation

Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) recently shared an in-depth story about Erin Collins, M.N.E., RN, a School of Nursing alum and certified hospice and palliative care nurse. Collins now works with an organization called The Peaceful Presence Project, which aims to “reimagine the way communities talk about, plan for and experience serious and terminal illnesses.”

OHSU offers extensive palliative care services, collaborating with a variety of external providers to meet patients’ needs—including end-of-life doulas like those Collins works with now. In addition to providing physical and emotional care, the OHSU team can also help with family communications and decision making during these difficult times.

“Nurses and physicians don’t always know how to have those conversations,” says Collins. “Palliative care should be part of all health education. Not just a specialty, but a standard part of education.”

Everyone deserves to be able to have these compassionate conversations.

>> Consider this: OHSU consistently shares stories from a diverse range of donors, alumni, students, faculty, staff, grateful patients and more. How could you include and amplify more voices from the breadth and depth of your community, and share those in your planned giving marketing?

Leaving a Legacy of Love

World Vision regularly invites supporters to think beyond their lifetime and reflect on the legacy they want to leave behind. This includes philanthropic goals as well as practical matters related to end of life.

For example, early each year World Vision sends planned giving prospects information on making a gift in their will. Recipients can request two free resources: Your Family’s Guide to Your Estate and What to Do in the First 48 Hours When You Lose a Loved One.

As a Christian humanitarian nonprofit, World Vision consistently communicates with their audience about sponsoring children in need and supporting other ministry opportunities. It’s a natural next step for sponsors to become planned giving prospects.

For their most loyal and generous donors—and likely yours as well—leaving a legacy of love is not lip service. It’s a way of life.

>> Consider this: World Vision doesn’t just talk about how to make a planned gift in their marketing – they talk about why donors should plan ahead for loved ones and loved causes and connect that why to the donor’s values and identity. How could you approach this kind of conversation with your planned giving audience?

Let’s Keep Talking

Broaching the topic of death with your donors can feel scary, I know. Perhaps examples like these can provide some reassurance and inspiration moving forward.

What do these ideas bring up for you and your organization? Feel free to share any thoughts or questions in the comment section below, and we’ll keep the conversation going.

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