Series: 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.

Cross donor recognition off your list, and move on to the next thing, right?

Wrong.

The problem with such a simplistic approach is that it assumes all types of donor recognition are effectively equal and that personal preference, opinion or industry trends are effective means of choosing which methods to employ. It leads organizations to believe a letter will substitute for a face-to-face conversation and a plaque is a reasonable alternative to a gathering of people with similar interests and motivations.

When donor recognition becomes predictable, it can be seen as generic or cliché and undermine the genuine connection between the donor and the mission of the organization. Most plaques are a brief historical record, lacking any true recognition of the person listed. Lists are forgotten with the next magazine or annual report — except in the anxiety they produce among those who compile them.

Predictability is safe and convenient but it rarely aligns with the donor’s emotions after having made a significant gift. To do recognition right, we need to be exceptional, to surprise and delight ourselves and the donor in the way we celebrate giving.

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Take, for instance, a donor who gives huge amounts of money toward a campaign to construct a new building. The donor’s name will grace that building once its complete, but that could take years. Doesn’t it make sense that a donor’s delight wanes when it takes so long for a naming opportunity to come to fruition?

To keep your donors engaged for the long-term (and inspire new generations to give), institutions need a recognition strategy that is timely, consistent and authentic.

The first step in developing that strategy: Set specific goals that align to the larger mission of your organization. Often, these are the same across organizations — motivate greater giving from existing donors, entice new donors to give, highlight the value of each individual donor relationship. Whatever they are for your organizations, they should be clearly stated and available to everyone who works with your donors.

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Next, it’s about determining the tactics to support that overarching strategy.

For that, we need to ask ourselves, What does the donor need from this relationship to feel appreciated for his or her unique contribution? At the same time, what does the organization need and how is that best accomplished? By aligning with tactics in other areas of the organization, the outcomes become more meaningful to the donor. The donor feels that he or she is engaged with the whole organization, not just the fundraising effort or the individual assigned to donor recognition.

With all that in place, decisions about how many events to hold in a year and what format they should take are easier to make because they’re based on estimated return on investment. The details of what type of donor recognition display to purchase, how much to pay for it, where to put it and who to list on it are far less daunting because there is clarity about why you should have a display at all. Best yet, the impetus to follow the latest trends dissipates, and your routine becomes all about checking strategic goals and confirming that each tactic meets the needs of both the organization and the donor.

And that’s when the magic happens.  

I bet you've performed some of that magic. We'd love to hear your success stories. If you can, share a photo of that delighted donor, too!

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.