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

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

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


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

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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, but 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.

For instance, when recognition takes a permanent place in an organization’s facilities, strategy must focus first on design standards and content guidelines. The outcome must address the audience that will see it every day even more than the donor who may never see it. The experience for the donor and his or her family is in the development of the story, the legacy-building it provides and the event planned around the plaque or display — all of which will be more meaningful to the donor than the product itself.


Now, there are times when a donor requests no public recognition for a gift, and many organizations give in to those requests with little to no debate, assuming the donor’s desires should be paramount. As a result, private activities may take place; but publicly, it’s as if the gift never happened. As a result, future philanthropy may suffer. Worse yet, the opportunity to tell an important story, one that has the potential to motivate giving, is lost.

In those instances, it’s important to engage the donor in conversation about the broader impact of public recognition and its potential to spawn continued support for your mission moving forward. You could, for instance, find a way to meet in the middle and tell the story in a way that preserves anonymity while still encouraging maximum impact.

One note of caution, though, as your organization considers the various methods of donor recognition: Be careful about setting precedents that cannot be maintained for all donors. If it’s not something you’re willing to do over and over again as an expression of gratitude, don’t do it at all.  

If you have experience working with a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, how did you handle it? What public recognition of the gift was possible and how did you balance the donor's wishes with your organization's need to celebrate the gift?

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.