No Harm, No Foul? For Donor Recognition, Think Again.
I have a friend who went to an event recently where there was a walk-through of a new fairly large, donor-funded facility that was under construction. The site was well designed, and a staff person enthusiastically gave a tour that explained what functions would be done in each area. The presentation was for a small group of major donors.
All seemed terrific until the development person in tow spoke. There was no “Thanks for coming” or “Isn’t this exciting”. Instead, the only time she spoke was when she pointed to a small-ish wall and said “…and here’s the donor recognition area!” The room got very quiet and everyone kept walking. In the next area, again the development person pointed to yet another area and said “…and here’s where the donor names will go!” (In case you’re wondering — yes, these statements were made with a big smile and lots of excitement/enthusiasm. Not so much enthusiasm was returned by the donors in the room.)
When I hear this story — and many others like it — I can’t help but get queasy. It would be one thing to show the location of the “donor recognition wall” if one of the donors asked about it, but without a context (other than that there was a room of donors), the comments were, at best, off-putting, tacky, and, in my opinion, inappropriate. Why would someone assume that the location of a donor recognition wall would make a difference in the size of gift someone was considering?
What drives me most crazy about this story is that the development exec just assumed that the donors in the room cared about public recognition.
As I’ve said in other posts, donors come in all “shapes and sizes”, and most, if not all, generalizations about “donors” won’t apply to many of them. Donors, like anyone else, are human beings with their own hopes, dreams, feelings — and reasons for giving. To suggest that anyone with financial resources who choose to give to nonprofits does so because they want their “name in lights” is just plain condescending. Maybe even just lazy. Assuming that “all donors _____” (fill in the blank) suggests that there just isn’t time or an inclination to speak to donors as individuals. Having those individual conversations about public recognition will clearly tell a fundraiser where the donor is on the “Donor recognition” spectrum.
Imagine a “Donor recognition” continuum where on end is “anonymous” and the other end is “name in lights with a marching band”. Somewhere between those two is where most donors are (in terms of how they want to be recognized). In a healthy, sustainable donor/fundraiser relationship, it’s easy for the two parties to discuss how the donor feels about recognition.
In fact, in a recent study about donor behavior relative to public recognition, the researchers (both professors at prestigious universities) discovered that “Nonprofit organizations often use various forms of public-facing recognition, from giving walls to galas, to acknowledge donations and encourage giving. New research suggests tactics like these may actually discourage the likelihood of donation.” It’s worth reading.
In another study, researchers looked — in great detail — at the published donor list, which just might be one of those things that we do mostly because “that’s what we’ve always done”. Turns out that the time and money your organization spends on those lists might not be helpful, in terms of bringing in more revenue, at all. Check it out here.
The bottom line is, as always, to stop assuming. The best way to fully understand a donor’s wishes relative to public recognition? Just ask them.
p.s. Note that “public recognition” is different than saying thank you to a donor. Everyone deserves a thank you. If you’re not 100% clear on this, read my earlier post on the issue here.
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