Series: Why Donor Recognition Matters


Editor’s note: The article below is the first in a series highlighting the importance of strategy in building a strong donor recognition program. Click here to view the series in its entirety.

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 donor recognition 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. Priorities seem arbitrary, and there are missed opportunities to enhance the recognition experience for the donors, advance the broader storytelling potential for the organization, and maximize the return on your investment of time and resources.

We plan so intensely around so many aspects of our work — why not build a powerful plan around saying “thanks”?

So what exactly does donor recognition involve? The scope of it is dizzyingly broad. Recognition can mean a letter; an event; gifts; or any variety of donor listings, including formal naming of spaces, programs, faculty positions, and scholarships. With the advent of digital media, donor walls can include electronic displays or be expressed as virtual experiences on a website. Only occasionally does the term donor recognition refer to an item with one or more donor names on it.

And when it’s done right, donor recognition can be a powerful tool in your fundraising arsenal. It expresses appreciation to the donor or donors, shows the broader community how much your donors mean to your organization, and ultimately, contributes to increased giving from new and existing donors.

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Where some of us go wrong is in thinking of donor recognition strategy as a form of manipulating human relationships. Especially when it comes to generosity and gratitude, being calculated in your approach can seem artificial or manipulative. Yet how is it really different from fundraising strategy? A donor makes a gift because they expect an outcome tied to the mission of the organization. If developing a strategic approach to donor recognition helps the organization realize its mission, wouldn’t the donor be proud to know that strategy is in place?

Part of the problem is that recognition is often treated as a decision to be made and executed after the gift has been received. It’s also largely driven by an organization’s sense of obligation to the donor. “It’s the right thing to do,” we tell ourselves. And pleasing donors becomes the motivating force.

But just as important is making the donor recognition experience fit within the character of the organization, motivating giving at the donor’s highest potential and inspiring others to give.

Donor recognition can’t be effective if it’s simply about checking a box. Your donors and your organization deserve more.

Written By Anne Manner-McLarty

Anne Manner-McLarty is the managing editor of the Journal of Donor Relations and Stewardship. She founded Heurista in 2011, a leading resource for consulting specific to donor relations and stewardship, with particular expertise in the donor recognition program design and implementation.