2.8 Working with Elderly Donors

Dear Kim:

Last year, we phoned one of our more elderly major donors to set up a meeting to talk with her about her annual gift.  To our surprise, she seemed disoriented and didn’t seem to remember us, though she’s met and spoken with our executive director and one of our board members on various occasions and has given substantially to our organization over the past four years.  The donor also reported that she hadn’t been well.  A few months later, we asked the board member who’d met with the donor and who lives nearby to try contacting her, and she received the same response.  She also learned that the donor now has an assistant.  Because we didn’t feel comfortable contacting the donor by phone again, a month or so later, we decided to send her a request via mail, followed by invitations to two events in her area, hoping that she would be feeling well enough to attend or contribute.  Normally we would have heard back from this donor, but, to-date, we’ve heard nothing.  So, we’re in a quandary and feeling a bit uncomfortable about contacting her again.  Should we contact her again this year in the hopes that she has recovered, and, if so, how would you suggest we do that?  Is there a way to prepare (aside from planned giving) for these types of situations as they occur with elderly donors?

~Feeling like a predator in Wisconsin

Dear Wisconsin:

You are certainly not a predator, although you are exhibiting early signs of a loss of common sense.  The donor herself said she had not been well.  At that point, sending a get well card or even dropping by with flowers or fruit and a card would have shown that you heard her, and were responding to her current situation.  I know you meant to be kind by inviting her to two events, but if she now has an assistant and your board member reports that she is still unwell, she probably has difficulty getting out much.

I would suggest going to see her without a request for money, and getting a sense of whether she is simply becoming less mobile and more fragile, or whether her previous disorientation has continued and may be a sign of some kind of dementia.  If she has recovered, then you can talk to her about your work and later come to see her and ask for another donation.  It may even be a good time to talk with her about planned giving.  If she is still disoriented and doesn’t remember you, then you will not do that.  You may also be able to get a sense of when is the best time to visit from her assistant.  Some people are very sharp in the morning and much less so by late afternoon.  Ideally you will want to visit her with one of her family members present if you are going to broach the subject of a planned gift.

All our donors are part of the family that makes our work possible.  Our most generous donors, who are often also our major donors, need to be treated the way loving families treat each other.  How do you treat your beloved elderly aunt or grandmother, for example?  People who have spent their lives being active, who now find it hard to be out much, really appreciate visitors and personal cards and notes.   You feel awkward contacting her, but she simply feels neglected by you and your silence, so your awkward feelings have to take a back seat to what she needs and wants.

With 78 million Baby Boomers growing older, all organizations need to become more knowledgeable about dealing with elderly donors because in a few years you will be swamped with us!  In-services for all staff presented by people with expertise in aging are a good way to get ready for this, and will help staff express the kindness they often feel but don’t know how to show.

Good luck!

~Kim Klein