Should I tell my friend his memorial plan is too expensive?
May 18, 2012 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Is there a way to politely tell my friend that his monetary requests for a memorial donation are self-defeating?

My friend's sister died young, and they want to establish a memorial scholarship in her name at the alternative school she attended. That's great, but they need $20K to establish the endowment fund, so they are asking people to donate $200 to the memorial fund to help set up the scholarship, and the number is turning a *lot* of people off the whole idea. They've gotten very few donations so far.

The family itself is not well off, and few of their friends are well off, so there's not many people in their circle that could afford to donate $200, even if they wanted to, and based on talking to a few mutual friends: nobody wants to. It's just too much money and they're all somewhat creeped out by being asked for such a large sum. Plus, a group of us got together (without being asked) and each donated money (I gave $100, I don't know what others gave) to help defray funeral expenses, so this would be another $200 on top of that.

They will take smaller donations to the fund, but every time they bring it up, on Twitter, at the memorial, etc, they always mention that they are looking for $200 donations.

My friend works for a charity, so I suspect he's internalized the idea that you should ask high in order to raise expectations, but he's asking so high that everyone I know has just thrown up their hands and said 'I can't possibly donate $200', so they donate nothing. I could donate another $50, maybe, but it feels so inadequate and pointless relative to the request for $200, so I'm not going to.

Should I explain this to him? If so, how? It's obviously a super-sensitive issue given the context.

Or should I butt out and assume that he will figure it out based on the lack of donations?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm concerned that he'll see the lack of donations and think that either no one cares about his sister or he isn't pushing hard enough. Neither of those outcomes will help him right now, while he's dealing with his grief.

I think you ought to say something to him about the donation amount. It sounds like it naturally comes up in conversation fairly often so you don't have to make a big stink about it - just a quick comment or two and then drop it.

A good time might be if/when you decide to donate another $50. You could say, "Here's $50. I wish I could give you $200 but unfortunately I can't afford it. At first I was worried that my $50 was going to be inadequate but then I thought, anything is better than nothing, right?"

Then later, you could say, "Remember when I told you that I was worried about the $50 donation not being enough? I was thinking about how our mutual friends friends don't have much money and I hope they aren't feeling the same way that I was. Maybe that's keeping them from donating. Maybe you shouldn't mention the $200 and see if people donate smaller amounts."
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:34 AM on May 18, 2012 [14 favorites]

Could you connect with a number of people you know would donate a particular minimum, say, $25, and present this group of committed donors to your friend, as evidence that a smaller donation request would gain more traction?
posted by xingcat at 7:40 AM on May 18, 2012

Start by being honest and serious about it.

He is your friend, and that means that you should go about this respectfully. The most respectful way to do it, however, is by being honest.

cranberrymonger's suggestion is very valid - obviously, I don't know the intricacies of your relationship with your friend. In my experience, when friends are making dumb moves (and judging from your explanation, your friend is making a dumb move), the best way is to attend to it directly.

In my experience, halfway measures have a way of growing onto themselves, eventually taking much, much more energy to deal with than doing it directly the first time.

So, start by being honest and serious about it.
posted by DemographicLanguage at 7:42 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure this answers your question specifically, just another perspective.

When my brother died I wanted to add to an existing family memorial in a public place. I needed about $500 to do so - money I didn't have. I solicited donations and while I had 20 or 50 bucks come in here and there, the total donation never exceeded about 150. I had a hard time with this because I knew my brother and I knew he was a wonderful guy and I just couldn't get my mind wrapped around why no one was willing to pitch in for this.

If someone had said to me, even in a kind and loving way, that maybe I was going about it all wrong - maybe I should just make do with what I had and reframe my expectations - I wouldn't have taken it well. This was how I chose to deal with the wound I had suffered and I was too close to the pain to take criticism.

Eventually I had to realize it for myself. I had to come to the point where I realized a sundial, plaque, tree and bench were unrealistic and frankly, my brother would never care what did and did not get done.

500 dollars is definitely not 20 thousand, and I don't understand the ins and outs of setting up something like that, but I can empathize with him wanting to "do something" because he's fixated on that something as being a way to help heal his and his family's pain.

I think if you decide to say something, the way to do it is much as cranberrymonger suggests. I'd also expect your friend to feel hurt, but I expect they'll get over it. Be kind and make sure your friend knows that you support his efforts, even if he's perhaps going about it wrong.
posted by Perthuz at 7:50 AM on May 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

Your friend wants to memorialize his sister. He feels that if he doesn't raise enough money then he will be letting her down. His pain is immense. Don't talk to him about the money, talk to him about his sister. Let him talk all night, every night, if he needs to.

Other ways you can help:
Ask several of your friends to go in together to get as close to the $200 as you can, and donate that.
The departed most likely did more than just school. Did she have a sports team that would want to hold a car wash or other fund raiser? A church? A favorite restaurant that would have a day for her memory, donating all the proceeds from her favorite sandwich? You can be creative here and help your friend out. His grief is too severe to be creative.
posted by myselfasme at 8:14 AM on May 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree with myselfasme - helping your friend to run a fundraiser is a great idea and it will provide a forum for your mutual friends to donate smaller amounts. In my experience, fundraisers are a much faster and more fun way to raise money than just sending emails asking for donations.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:36 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your friend is using his skills - fundraising - to feel more in control a terrible situation. Even if he is frustrated by the lack of success that this campaign is seeing, it is still providing him something to focus on in his grief. I would resist the urge to take that away, as that is probably ultimately the true positive outcome of this pursuit. The endowment most likely wont ever happen. "Helping" him to see that may just end up making him feel even more powerless in an already horrible situation.

Think of it this way: Aunt Marge sings in the church choir every Sunday. Someone, in about 1973, told her she had a lovely voice and that she should sing in the choir. That person was tone-deaf. She's been doing so ever since, and although she's horrible, she knows all the damn words to Eagle's Wings, blindfolded and slightly tipsy. When a relative of Aunt Marge's dies, someone says, "Hey Marge, you sing with the choir, think you could do Eagle's Wings at the memorial? Cousin Ralph sure would have loved that."

Aunt Marge sucks, but she's encouraged that she can honor Cousin Ralph's memory. She gets ready to sing, and asks you to listen to her. When she starts squawking, what do you say?


Not: "Hon, I know a really nice voice teacher who can help you sing the right pitches."

Sure you'd be helping her. You might even be helping her honor Cousin Ralph with something other than that awful death rattle she just unleashed on you. But you'd be taking away something very important from her: the feeling that she was using her "gifts" to honor a loved one.

Don't insert yourself into this situation. Be there for your friend when he wants to talk about his sister. If he starts complaining about people not donating more/enough/at all, just say something vague like, "I'm sure everyone is doing everything that they can." and then bring it back to his grief with something like "This is such a difficult time for everyone. I hope you know that we all love you very much."
posted by jph at 8:38 AM on May 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

If $20,000 is the minimum amount needed to endow the fund, even at $200 per donation they would have to find at least 100 people willing to donate at this amount. This already strikes me as unlikely, unless this is a high publicity situation (e.g., as there would be if a popular young athlete died on the field). If they start reducing the amount of their solicited donation, they're just making things more difficult for themselves. At some point they have to do the calculus of how they're spending their fundraising efforts. Finding 100 people willing to donate 200 bucks may be more effective than finding 400 people willing to donate 50 bucks.

That said, you say that "the family itself is not well off, and few of their friends are well off." If they don't have at least a few deep-pockets friends willing to give large amounts, and in consideration of the fact that they don't have deep pockets themselves, it's hard to see how they will possibly raise $20k. This is not a conversation it's your place to have with them about this project. But, on the other hand, let's say you talk to them, they change their solicitation strategy and collect $3,000 in $50 and $25 donations from around 50 people. Now they have probably tapped out all their personal connections who might be willing to donate and they have still fallen far short of their $20,000 fundraising goal with little hope of ever reaching it. Now what do they do? They're holding 3 grand from their friends, neighbors and acquaintances that will never be used in a scholarship find. Now they're in a very awkward position. They either have to figure out a way to give the money back, or they have to seek permission to donate the funds to some other charitable purpose than that for which it was originally collected. They certainly can't keep or spend the money.
posted by slkinsey at 8:42 AM on May 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

Tell your friend to put himself in others' shoes... if all of his friends started a memorial scholarship fund for a deceased loved one, would he be willing to shell out $200 for each of them?

I find it extremely odd that he's pursuing this fundraising act when he cannot himself contribute much to it. Almost like its a therapeutic effort to make up for some shortcoming that he never got to make up to his sister when she was alive. He may be alienating himself from the people who are still sympathetic to him... an offer of condolences is responded to with solicitation for hundreds of dollars? Some may take offense at that, I know I would.
posted by el_yucateco at 9:03 AM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only thing I would say to him is, if he expresses pain or surprise that people are not donating what he wishes they would, that they would surely have donated if it could have saved his sister, or relieve his grief. But it can't, and most people are not in a position to give $200 to a stranger's tuition, which is what funding a scholarship would be. I agree with el-yucateco that there's a disconnect between grief - which demands condolences, love, and emotional support - and demanding money to fund a scholarship.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:27 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would suggest reaching out to him and saying, point-blank, "You know, I've already donated some money, and I was thinking about donating another $50, which is what I can afford, but I keep seeing your notes asking for $200, and it makes me feel like my $50 wouldn't really be appreciated. Do you worry that other folks might be thinking the same thing?" And leave it at that. He will likely tell you that your $50 (and your previous donation) are very much appreciated, and that (as you suspect) he's asking big to encourage big. From that point on, you've raised the issue in an honest and straightforward way, and it is up to him to decide what to do, so you can drop it and move on.
posted by davejay at 11:10 AM on May 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know he's hurting, but he's also trying to buy something he simply cannot afford. It's like a couple planning a huge dream wedding with 1000 guests, when they've got a total budget of maybe $500 --- expectations have to be adjusted.

In your friend's case, I wouldn't tell him that; I'd merely try gently explaining that no matter how much you would all like to, neither you nor your circle of friends can possibly donate more, and certainly not at the $200-per-person level he's requesting.
posted by easily confused at 12:27 PM on May 18, 2012

Okay, so you're getting advice from someone who's a longtime professional in the fundraising consulting field (me) and you don't have to tell him that you got it through the Internet.

Here's what a professional in the fundraising field says: From the information you've given me, his target for individual gifts is far too large for the pool of donors he's currently working with. He should sound out a few representative folks and ask them candidly how much they can give--for instance, it sounds like $50 is your comfort zone--and set up the "individual donor" phase of his solicitation accordingly.

Yes, this means he's going to have to ask a lot more folks. On the other hand, it's easier to ask for $25 or $50 than for $200, so he can stretch the net wider. My guess is that, say, his sister's former teachers, Girl Scout leaders, clergypeople, friends' parents, whatever would be far more likely to contribute $25 or $50.

He's probably also going to have to add a corporate/business/foundation component to his fundraising plan. Local banks are often good for contributions to this kind of initiative. Businesses based in the city or town or area are good candidates; for instance, if he lived here in the Boston area, I would encourage him to contact the New Balance shoe corporation, who do a lot of charitable giving. If there's a community foundation, he should hit them up (probably for something in the $500 range, as they usually have a budget line for one-time discretionary gifts of that type).

One thing he should think about looking for is help from an experienced fundraiser. The local universities, private schools, hospitals, museums, etc. will have development departments--if he doesn't know anyone who works there or know anyone who knows anyone who works there, sometimes sending an email out of the blue and saying "I'm trying to put together a memorial fund at {school} for my sister {information about the sister}. I have no background in fundraising, and I really need help in creating a fundraising plan. Would it be possible for me to take you to lunch and ask you a few questions about how I should proceed?" will work (I know I helped out a couple of people based on just that kind of contact).
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:02 PM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am probably not as professional as sidhedevil here, but I also do fundraising work for a relatively successful nonprofit. I think that he definitely needs to do individual, targeted asks. But I think he may also be having unrealistic expectations around his goal itself, which are possibly unmanageable.

Raising funds for things like "scholarships" (i.e. non-event based and non-cause related charity) is one of the most difficult things to do. Even donors with deep pockets are often reluctant to contribute to things like that, unless their charitable giving is generally focused on education-based giving.

If he is soliciting his friends and family, I wonder if there is also a disconnect between how he feels and how everyone else feels. Do you think that it is really that no one has the cash on hand, or do you think that people simply don't want to contribute 200 dollars to the memorial fund, even if they did have it? It is highly likely that no one is going to care about his sister as much as he does.

If it's just about cash on hand, I think maybe approaching him using charity language would actually be really useful. "Hey Friend X, I'd really like to donate to this scholarship, but I don't have too much cash on hand. I'd like to pledge Y amount of money, and put this amount towards it." Or, "Hey, Friend X, I'd like to donate at the level you need, but I don't have a large cash flow each month. I'd like to become a sustaining donor to your project, and contribute Z-smaller-amount each month." This will resonate with anyone who's done actual fundraising.
posted by corb at 7:38 AM on May 19, 2012

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