Blog Series: Donor Recognition

Why Donor Recognition Matters

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Institutions of all sizes are strategic in their fundraising — and with good reason.

An organization needs money to survive, and they wouldn’t go into the process of raising thousands or even millions of dollars without a plan.

But just as valuable as convincing those donors to give, is recognizing their generosity. And that’s where so many organizations fall short.

As a consultant, I have had the good fortune to see organizations of many sizes and types in action. More often than not, they have no specific process for creating and working a plan, measuring the success of those efforts and revising that plan as needed to achieve superior results. Instead, tradition, convenience, budget, personal opinions or donor preference seem to drive donor recognition decision-making.

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Finding Meaning in the ‘Parties, Pins and Plaques’

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Donor recognition is sometimes loosely defined as “parties, pins and plaques.” That’s because many institutions think about donor recognition in an isolated way, limited to the variety of activities or objects used to show appreciation for a donor, both publicly and privately. There's not always enough thought put into how to make the outcome – the party, the pin or the plaque – specific to the donor, the organization and the relationship they share.

I get it: Settling into easy-to-achieve outcomes, habits and so-called norms gives donor recognition the comfort of routine, efficiency and consistency. If what was done last year seemed to work, we can do it again. If what the institution across town is doing is working, it must be worth emulating. If the donor says he or she is happy, we can apply the same logic to the next donor.

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The Donor is Everything in Donor Recognition – True or False?

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So donor-centricity is everything when it comes to donor recognition strategy, right?

Wrong.

It runs counter to everything we’re inclined to believe about donor recognition, but stay with me for a moment. 

Organizations often misinterpret the concept of “donor-centric” and establish subjective goals like “surprising and delighting” donors. I get that, but it is a limited measure of success. It’s always good to excel in the expression of gratitude, setting this as a goal is not a substitute for a fully formed donor recognition strategy. An organization must strive to achieve the greatest impact with the time and money invested — not just with the donor, but with its entire community.

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Donor Recognition Program Design

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There are so many ways to thank a donor that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Donor recognition activities can be private or public, temporary or permanent, and reside at the organization or with the donor. As always, it’s important that each activity aligns with your overall strategy, and that you adjust your tactics as needed. But in general, a strong donor recognition strategy is built on a few key tactics:

  • Mass communication (with personalization whenever possible)

  • Customized communications (such as individually crafted letters and phone calls)

  • Tours or meetings with leaders, researchers or service providers

  • Events (large or small)  

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How to Make Permanent Public Donor Recognition Work for You

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Just like any big commitment in life — a marriage, a child, a tattoo — permanent public donor recognition requires careful consideration, and not just of one person’s opinion.

Twenty years creating plaques and displays — those elements most likely to take a permanent public place in an organization — allows me to make a bold assertion: campus-based donor recognition should be an investment in talking about donors to the general audience, not simply a method for generating a positive response from the individual donor.

Here’s why that holds true: The donor will likely see the plaque or display once or twice. The people who work, study or are served in the building will see it every day. With that in mind, you must consider what the location, quality, and content of the donor recognition product say to the general audience about your organization and its attitudes toward philanthropy.

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Donor Program Management Tools

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Effective donor recognition can’t happen in a bubble.

It’s got to be a group effort. Internal and external teams must align on objectives, roles, budgets, and schedules to create standards around all types of donor recognition. The final product of that collaboration is a living document, keeping everyone on the same page with the occasional update or edit.

So, what should this vital document include?

The most comprehensive address a host of activities, including announcements, events, mementos and lists as well as plaques and displays. Emphasis can be placed on different components depending on the type and size of the organization and its fundraising programs. For instance, a hospital might have a greater focus on annual and employee giving campaigns while an academic institution might have more naming opportunities for scholarships, faculty positions and programs.

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Analyzing ROI in Donor Recognition

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Effective donor recognition can’t happen in a bubble.

It’s got to be a group effort. Internal and external teams must align on objectives, roles, budgets, and schedules to create standards around all types of donor recognition. The final product of that collaboration is a living document, keeping everyone on the same page with the occasional update or edit.

So, what should this vital document include?

The most comprehensive address a host of activities, including announcements, events, mementos and lists as well as plaques and displays. Emphasis can be placed on different components depending on the type and size of the organization and its fundraising programs. For instance, a hospital might have a greater focus on annual and employee giving campaigns while an academic institution might have more naming opportunities for scholarships, faculty positions and programs.


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How to Build Change into Your Donor Recognition Strategy

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Strategy isn’t static.

After 20 years in this field, I’ve seen that firsthand. Flexibility is key, and a successful donor recognition program will have to change over time.

I also believe you can plan for change. Part of that is understanding the factors that could cause fluctuations in your donor recognition program. Here’s a breakdown of those issues:  

  • Shifts in organizational or fundraising strategy, often as a result of leadership transition 


  • Increased longevity/complexity in the organization’s donor relationships (the better you do your job, the more challenging it becomes) 


  • Increases in the number of donor relationships to be managed (again, the better you do your job, the more challenging it becomes) 


  • Technology and material advances 


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