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Documenting: Why It’s Especially Important When Working with Aging Donors

Published:  12/20/2017

Based on a 2017 AHP Annual International Conference session presented by David Madson, ACFRE, Director, Leadership and Planned Giving, Alameda Health System Foundation and Jodie Miner, VP, Swedish Medical Center Foundation.

Working with donors who are elderly may bring up ethical questions for fundraisers. It may not even be obvious to a fundraiser who does not spend more than a few visits with a donor that a donor is handicapped. People with advanced dementia can seem fine for an hour lunch with a gift officer.

Dementia is an impairment in memory and is associated with a change in someone’s ability to think abstractly. A decline in cognitive function as one ages is normal—until it interferes with work or normal activities. But the patient may not even know they have a problem or that they are unable to make financial decisions.

Organizations need to protect both their donors and their fundraisers in this situation. The unfortunate fact is that elder financial abuse is rampant and that puts our profession under the microscope. We do not want any of our practices to fall into a gray area.

The best thing to do is document. Create a paper trail of phone calls, meetings, and even of certain comments, so that an heir may not be able to accuse you of taking advantage of the donor.

Document in letters and in emails what you discussed with the donor and what their next steps are. Writing the letter could also be a way communicating with the children of the donor, because they may open mail for their parents. It allows the children, who may be in a better position to know the donor’s mental state, to be aware of their parents’ wishes. We have a duty to the donors to fulfill their intentions, which may be different from those of the family.

In the same vein, you need to be able to protect fundraisers from getting too involved and looking predatory. As fundraisers, especially a young fundraiser, you need to know your boundaries. Your institution may have policies that will help you know when you might be crossing a line. Teach your employees to trust their instincts and look for red flags—if something odd seems to be happening in their discussion with a donor, stop sending proposals. Again, documenting is important here. Recapping each meeting helps a fundraiser set a professional tone with the donor.

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