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The funeral gap – How social distancing has affected in-memory fundraising and why this matters

12 October 2020 at 6:36 pm
Kate Jenkinson
The evolution of funerals has presented a challenge and an opportunity for charities in the UK, and has implications for Australia, writes Kate Jenkinson, in the second of her three-part series.

Kate Jenkinson | 12 October 2020 at 6:36 pm


The funeral gap – How social distancing has affected in-memory fundraising and why this matters
12 October 2020 at 6:36 pm

The evolution of funerals has presented a challenge and an opportunity for charities in the UK, and has implications for Australia, writes Kate Jenkinson, in the second of her three-part series.

The UK in-memory market – contributing around £2.2 billion ($3.9 billion) according to research by Legacy Foresight – is firmly grounded in funeral giving. Memorial services still drive almost half of all in-memory donations and account for over a third of total value. (Other in-memory events fundraising generates a further third, while the remainder comes from more minor sources like tribute funds, regular giving and commemorative products).

It had become established practice for British charities to supply collection envelopes to bereaved families for them to distribute on church or crematorium pews. Collections were generally administered by the funeral director or residing vicar – a fairly standardised process that required little promotion on the charity’s part.

Before the pandemic, research by Legacy Foresight showed how social change was precipitating a revolution in the UK funerals market. Our appetite for highly personalised send-offs – colliding with the dissolution of organised religion, growth of non-Christian faiths and increased secularisation – meant we were starting to reject the standard, “one size fits all” funeral service, with its overtones of stiffness and conformity. Instead, the trend was moving swiftly in favour of creative, bespoke memorial events that felt as relevant and fitting as possible to the individuals they were designed to commemorate.

Quite simply, fewer traditional funerals meant fewer “bums on seats”, so fewer old-style charity collections. Mourners found the sight of envelopes and collection plates increasingly anachronistic, expected to be able to donate before and after the service itself, and to be offered cashless methods of payment. Funeral directors took a step back. Not surprisingly, since at least 2012 Legacy Foresight’s charity benchmarking research has shown a small but steady annual decrease in the percentage of the British public who have donated at a funeral.

Then came COVID-19. Back in March this year, none of us knew how deep-cutting the effects of social distancing would prove to be. As the nation locked down, churches and crematoria also bolted their doors. In its recent report, the UK’s leading provider of funerals, Co-op Funeral Care, estimated that between March and May alone, 243,000 families were left feeling they’d been unable to say goodbye in the way they’d have chosen to. Profoundly affected by the death of Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, a 13-year-boy who’d been separated from his family, the British Health Secretary eventually moved to relax funeral restrictions in stages. But not before, according to Co-op, the average number of mourners at funerals had dropped from its usual 50 to a mere 10.

What does this mean for our sector? Australian charities, like their British counterparts, rely heavily on funeral homes as conduits of their in-memory income. A Legacy Foresight survey found that two thirds of participating British charities believed their funeral income had fallen away in April compared to the three months prior, including 43 per cent who believed it had decreased a lot. The downturn appeared most severe for health charities, normally among the most likely to benefit from funeral collections.

According to Co-op’s estimate, at least 80 per cent of bereaved people may now be experiencing memorial deprivation syndrome. Many more could be supporters of your charity. We anticipate a new wave of events, very different in feel to the rudimentary funerals that characterised lock-down, at which families will attempt to compensate. These could be far more uplifting and celebratory occasions. The types of charities that benefit might start to change, if next-of-kin want their send-offs to be more about how their loved one lived rather than how they died, “loved in life” causes (e.g. animals, conservation, armed services) may well be favoured. 

With restrictions still in place, it’s too early to understand the true size and essence of this phenomenon. But a huge challenge – and opportunity – for all charities is to help families see that an in-memory collection is still relevant and important at these new-style events. Is your charity’s information for families who might be interested in organising a collection as helpful and inspiring as it can be? Is it tailored to the post-pandemic world? 

The donor’s loved one will always be central to these memorials. Were they a supporter, volunteer or member of your charity? If so, suggest and celebrate these bonds wherever you can. If your charity was important to the loved one, be heartened that your connections will likely resonate with their family and could prove a much-valued element of their ultimate goodbye. 


About the author: Kate Jenkinson is head of in-memory consultancy at Legacy Foresight, Europe’s foremost analysts of the legacy and in-memory sectors. The In-Memory Insight research program explores the size, shape and scope of in-memory giving, collecting hard evidence to inform in-memory fundraising strategies and convince senior management of the value of in-memory giving. The program involves  a learning circle of leading UK charities who agree to pool their budgets, experiences and data to help build evidence and insight.

Legacy Foresight and FIA are planning a series of Australian webinars about in-memory giving and fundraising later this year.

See also: ‘Never forgotten’ – The unique power of in-memory giving

Kate Jenkinson  |  @ProBonoNews

Kate Jenkinson is head of in-memory consultancy at Legacy Foresight.

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