Here’s a fact you’ve probably never considered before: we human beings are the only species on earth that lives with the knowledge of our impending death. No other creature in the world has to think about how it might die. Or what will happen to it after it dies. No other creature wonders: will my life have made a difference?
As we age, we come into closer contact with our own mortality. We think about it more. We ask the existential questions about the meaning of life and whether we’re living the best lives possible. Will we be remembered when we’re gone? Will it all have mattered?
The other side of the mortality coin is, of course, immortality. People have been fascinated by the search for – and the promise of – immortality going back thousands of years. Plato wrote about it. Jesus promised it. Ponce de Leon searched the swamps of Florida looking for it.
The desire for immortality has been a part of the human experience for as long as we’ve been able to think and wonder and share our stories with each other. None of us seems to want to accept that the life experience simply goes from a state of nothingness to a state of nothingness. We all seem to want to amount to more than zero in the grand scheme of things.
So what does this have to do with fundraising? And, how can you use your knowledge of immortality to raise more money?
Academic experts have identified four types of immortality – and one of them links directly to philanthropy:
When you die, your body decomposes and your component parts become a part of other elements (like the minerals in your body go into the earth and eventually nourish plants.)
It’s a widely accepted belief that we live on in our children and grandchildren. Those of us who become parents achieve biological immortality.
Many religious traditions are based in large part on a ‘spiritual contract’ between God and the adherent. If a follower of a particular faith follows the rules as laid out by God, then God will reward His follower with eternal spiritual life.
Harvard psychiatrist Robert Lifton coined this term to describe those material and abstract elements of our lives that remain after our passing. These can range from things we’ve constructed (like buildings) to the beliefs and values we’ve instilled in others.
It’s the realm of symbolic immortality into which legacy gifts fall. A bequest is a powerful statement of the causes to which the donor was most deeply connected (like fighting cancer or eliminating poverty). It is also a reflection of the donor’s personality and character – a symbol of empathy, love and sharing.
When you’re communicating with your legacy donors and prospects, I think it’s a good idea to speak appropriately about the idea of immortality. The donor wants to believe that her good deeds will live on even after she’s gone. She will feel a deep satisfaction knowing that she will trigger good works that will occur after her passing.
In some aboriginal traditions in the American Southwest, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand, there is a belief that a person has not one, but three deaths.
The first death occurs when we draw our last breath.
The second death occurs at our internment (funeral, memorial service).
And the third death occurs when our name is spoken for the last time. The legacy gift is often a way to keep one’s memory alive – to keep one’s name spoken well into the future.
A bequest is a profoundly meaningful expression of one’s humanity. It’s a spiritual extension of love to a future that one will not see.
It is a path to immortality. You have the noble task of helping your donors along that path. I hope you’ll fully appreciate that journey.