The Letter You Hope You Never Have to Send

by Joan Garry

Somebody connected to your org dies. You want to send out a letter. Does this statement say what your organization wants to say and how does that align with what people need to hear?

Recently, I introduced you to Cathy, who runs a residence for women struggling with dementia.

In the context of a country being ravaged by COVID-19 there are many awful things that could happen with Cathy’s organization. Families prohibited from visiting. Cash flow problems. An inability to bring in new residents. Social distancing inside the facility.

But we all know what the worst thing is: a resident or staff member could die from the Coronavirus.

Cathy and her board had that hard conversation. That demonstrated real leadership. They all decided that it was important to have a statement at the ready. This is part of their disaster plan.

A lot of you asked to see the letter. I spoke with Cathy and she generously agreed to share both the original draft and the final version so we can pull out the lessons in detail.

I’m very grateful to Cathy for allowing me to tell this story. As you can imagine, she is reluctant to share specifics for fear of alarming her organization’s family but the letters offer us all some valuable lessons.

Here goes.


Before we get into these lessons, please download the two versions here. I’ve put them into a single PDF you can download so you can see the “before” and “after”.

Go ahead and download them and I’ll be here to offer my thoughts when you return in a moment.


OK – you’re back!

Cathy is a member of my Nonprofit Leadership Lab and posted the draft so that one of our experts could offer advice and guidance. When I saw it, I wanted to take this one myself and offered my time to have a look and share my thoughts.

First off, I acknowledged how hard it must have been to write this letter and how much I admired her and her board for doing what excellent leaders do well. They anticipate and are thoughtful about their communications.

As you read the draft, perhaps you have some of the observations I do. The statement is clear, it demonstrates that the organization took all the right precautions and was highly responsible at every step of the way. The draft offers compassion recognizing that the loss has taken a deep emotional toll on the community.

All good. Very good. I offered a single question that I felt might lead to a stronger statement.

Does this statement say what your organization wants to say and how does that align with what people need to hear?


This question led to a shift in her thinking about the statement. I encouraged Cathy to consider the varying audiences the statement would reach and what each audience needed to hear, either explicitly or implicitly.

We came up with the following.

Family of the loved one Condolences. That my family member was loved.
Families of other residents Are my family members safe?
Staff Acknowledgement of their efforts, following protocols, and acknowledging their loss
Donors Are you doing all the right things? Are you being compassionate and caring as you navigate this crisis
Community Members This is an important organization. We need these folks to run a first rate center.
Media Is there a feature story here about the heroic efforts of this organization?

Is there a feature story about the individual who passed?

Is there a journalist looking for an expose – potential gaps in service delivery or quality.


Based on this table, Cathy went back and looked at the original draft and together we identified a few important ways to strengthen the statement to meet the needs of the different audiences.

  • The mission of this organization is to be compassionate and caring and Cathy determined that the letter needed to be more emotive.
  • One of the biggest gaps in the original draft was the answer to, “Are my family members safe?” Here I advised that there needed to be a stronger sense of what the organization will be doing going forward.
  • Every communication from an organization, even a tough one like this, should reinforce both your ‘why’ and your values as an organization. All messaging must be mission centric.


Go back to the PDF download and read the revised version. See if the differences are clear. Did the organization address the needs of the different audiences?

The statement is different and stronger – much more emotive, acknowledging the depth of the loss.

The addition of the description of the decedent as a ‘beloved member of the community’ offsets the legal restriction that prohibits offering a name and a story.

The statement offers condolences to the family. And the final graph reminds the reader about the fact that this organization has been taking care of residents for nearly three decades and is deeply committed to the highest quality care.


Some of you might wonder if a press statement would be required in this instance or if a personal letter from the CEO might make more sense. Actually, the CEO and board chair should sign the letter.

I think that is a fair question and it is possible that a letter to the community may make good sense. This statement attempts to thread the needle and offer some of what you would put into a letter beyond the key facts.

If you have any journalist interested in exposing how institutions in your community are dropping the ball (and I so hope that is not something you need to deal with now), a statement might send a strong message that it is in fact important for the media to know and report on the impact of COVID-19 on the community and allow the organization to address this proactively – a much stronger position with any journalist who is hungry for an expose.


A statement like this is critically important and that was the focus on this piece. But at the very least, please have the following ready as well.

There should be a list of key stakeholders in each of the categories in the table above – name, role in the organizational family, and a phone number. Next to each should be the name of a senior staff member or board member. Everyone should be asked to drop everything and make their calls within 24 hours of the release of the statement.

Use the statement for talking points and then add two important questions: 1) How are you and your family doing? 2) Do you have any questions for us?

These questions should be forwarded to the CEO who can take themes from these and incorporate them into future communications.


I hope that when this is all behind us and we are all on the road to recovery, that I can tell you all about Cathy and her wonderful organization. And let’s all pray that Cathy never has to hit the SEND button on this.

Please stay safe and healthy.

Leave a Comment