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Until recently, if you’d asked me about heroism, I’d have directed you straight to the Cenotaph steps on Remembrance Sunday.

What is a hero?

According to the ONS, there are still tens of thousands of men living in Britain who saw active combat in WW2. We witness their numbers dwindle each year – many now bent double with age but never diminished in dignity.

Then in 2020, we reframed our idea of what makes a hero. The nurse, coming off a 12-hour shift. The care worker on lockdown for months on end, unable to hug his children. The café owner, dishing out meals to the community even as her own business descends into freefall.

Meanwhile, in a climate where our control over most aspects of our life is slipping away, advertisers have seized on the idea of ‘everyday heroism’.

#Stayathomeheroes – the campaign for the charity set up by NHS workers for NHS workers – celebrated the mundane, time-killing activities that became our line of defence against the virus. IKEA’s ‘Everyday Heroes’ championed the less sexy items of its collection – hooks, hangers and toilet roll – that serve us humbly but have now finally had their big close up – even their own Twitter account. And ethical water company One has raised over £12M for charity, inspiring consumers to become ‘instant heroes’ by making a simple brand switch.

The National Alliance for Grieving Children even offers families the chance to download a Hero Toolkit, full of ideas, activities and conversation openers. For capeless crusaders, making small differences – or as M&S might have had it, making ordinary extraordinary.

When in-memory donors talk to us in research, it’s very striking how they never describe their loved ones in terms of the ordinary or every day, preferring open-hearted superlatives: they were the kindest, the most selfless, the most generous, the best in the world. Don’t we all believe these things about the people we love?

No wonder that supporters are so drawn to charities’ in-memory products and services that invite them to heroise their loved ones. Their name on the side of a lifeboat. Their picture on a running back sign. Their inscription in a Book of Remembrance. To believe someone is a hero is to want their memory to live on. As Breast Cancer Now’s tribute fund holder Carmel says of her sister Paula, “this means so much … because she’s still alive when people are talking about her”.

In our stewardship research last year, ALL donors we spoke to were clear that they never wanted their in-memory charity to forget their ‘why’; their hero, who was still front and centre of everything. Yet despite some in-memory products that hit the spot, many charities haven’t yet grasped that love is the life force of heroism. They appear reluctant to talk about the person being remembered, focusing instead on their perceived ideas of benefits to the donor (convenience/ doing something ‘worthy’); or worse still, on their own mission and objectives.

What’s to be done?

  • Put the person being honoured at the centre of your in-memory information and ollateral. Talk about that person. Ask questions about them. Acknowledge how special they must have been. Speculate about their connections with your charity and why you might have been chosen for gifts in their memory. Advertise a phone number or create an online platform so donors can share their stories with a real human being at your charity. Share this content to inspire others.

  • Then pull your attention back to that wave of delayed memorial events that as a sector we are anticipating next year. All those families who have been unable to grieve for someone this year in the way they’d have wanted to. How can you help your supporters with that ultimate (compensatory) celebration of a life? Because if your charity was a ‘significant other’ in their loved one’s life, you surely have a role to play here? Supporters want to think, hear and talk about their loved ones, and you are part of that story.

One (very forthright) in-memory supporter recently told me in a research interview:

We didn’t have a perfect marriage. He could be a sod. But I loved every last bone in his body

Her husband didn’t wear a military uniform, scrubs or even a tabard. But he was a hero.