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Five Considerations for Donor Recognition

By David J. Fry, MPS, CDT

Many donors will say they aren’t motivated by recognition, but despite their claim their gifts can be influenced by it. I’ve worked in various forms of fundraising for a couple of decades and have experienced nearly every form of recognition. Some are inspiring and motivational, others are tired and obligational, and unfortunately some have been error-filled and/or non-existent. Let’s concentrate on five basic considerations to avoid the more problematic issues with donor recognition.

Donor recognition is a key part of the donor retention strategy and I’ve addressed it in another article. However, in this piece we are targeting common issues arising when providing donors with the recognition they deserve and sometimes seek, despite claims to the contrary.

Acknowledge Gifts Promptly

How quickly one accomplishes a task often reflects the joy or enthusiasm for doing it. The same can apply for the practice of acknowledging donor gifts. Therefore, I encourage clients to be certain they have a policy to acknowledge gifts in a personal form within 48 business hours of receipt. A rapid response speaks volumes and demonstrates just how important the contribution was to your organization. A delayed acknowledgement implies just the opposite showing little value.

When it comes to capital campaigns the same can be said for the actual recognition plaque or display. Donors may think twice about giving in the future if the piece isn’t installed in reasonable time or delayed until much later, after the project ends. Granted, many will not care about the recognition but it’s better to cater to those who will and error on the side of exceeding expectations.

Recognize Gifts Accurately

You can never verify donor specifics too much. Yes, I’ve seen those written and more permanent acknowledgements with misspelled names, deceased and divorced individuals listed erroneously, and wrong levels of giving noted. It is bad enough during the appeal phase but a pivotal error during acknowledgement.

With today’s technology and access there is no good excuse for getting it wrong and every reason to get it right. Nothing says “you know nothing about me” to a donor more than getting their basic information wrong. If you are installing permanent recognition have all donors sign off on the listing because life situations change in the interim.

Fulfill the Promise(s) Made

You absolutely must carry through and fulfill the promise you made when you solicited and received the gift. As an organization makes the ask, they generally promote various giving levels and identify related recognition, delineated as a certain type of plaque or recognition display. When the gift is made, your organization has made a promise to your donor. It’s imperative that you fulfill your promise, or at the very least keep the donor apprised of changes, or issues involved in the change, BEFORE its completion.

I can think of several instances where either the promised plaque was never produced, or the recognition display morphed into something totally unrelated to the original vision. This type of disregard for the donor’s intent (without their permission) can do permanent damage to your donor relationship and the reputation of the organization. Fulfilling the original promise will help do the opposite and leave a positive impression.

Be Professional, Yet Respectful

A little creativity goes a long way and form letters don’t when acknowledging donor gifts. E.g., youth-serving organizations have included stories, testimonials, or even drawings, connecting donors to the service recipients. Take the time to provide an unexpected find in your acknowledgement and something they’ll always remember. Remember, pictures are worth 1,000 words.

When considering permanent donor recognition, I’ve seen some extremely creative and artistic approaches. Normally, they come with a hefty price tag that could discourage donors if they were aware of the cost. Recognition should not lie at either end of the financial continuum. Cheaply printed and poorly designed pieces can speak to the gratitude level just as the exorbitant expenditures can be off putting when measured against organizational impact. Consider a middle of the road, reasonably flexible, recognition piece that respects the integrity of the organization and project, while placing a focus on the donor and their giving.

Motivate Other Donors

When donor recognition checks off all the boxes mentioned above, it can serve to motivate others to donate. Word of mouth can be vital in attracting others to the cause and donors talk to other donors and make referrals. An inspiring acknowledgement will increase that likelihood.

Likewise, when someone sees an opportunity to have their name listed with peers it may spur them to consider a similar gift. Therefore, I encourage organizations to make provisions in their more permanent recognition for potential future additions. This allows you to accommodate those future gifts (which become icing on the proverbial cake) and provide them with the same recognition they admired.

Recognition of a valued donor gift is not simply a good idea, depending on the level, there can also be an IRS requirement attached. Just as we don’t want to take the donor gifts for granted, we can’t simply breeze by the recognition piece. The donors and their recognition deserve much more thought, planning, and consideration than many organizations are giving.

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