Donor Recognition: Balancing Modesty and Smart Fundraising Seven Ways

by Robert I. Evans & Avrum D. Lapin

Despite the fact that we know how important it is, saying “thank you” properly to an organization’s donors has received inconsistent attention from non-profit leadership over the years. To complicate matters, as a result of today’s paradigm shifts, we are seeing a re-emergence of more anonymous major giving.  So how should non-profits respond and what should major donors expect as recognition of their generous support of organizations they believe in?

Jewish texts suggest that giving without expectation of public recognition is the highest form of tzedakah; however, donors have always sought acknowledgement in a variety of ways. In response, recipient organizations have developed various methods to express their appreciation.

Therefore, what lessons can we take away from our experiences today that guide us in how to best engage and recognize donors?

There is a general feeling that Jewish non-profits in these times need to be more low key regarding public expressions of appreciation. Organizations need to convey the message to contributors that their donations are addressing vital needs that support their mission and vision for the future. To respond appropriately, successful donor recognition companies have adapted by toning down their art or signage options and offering new “modest” products to adjust to the marketplace.

Some completed campaigns have deferred recognition pieces. And like all industries in this current economy, we are witnessing price cutting by many donor recognition firms. Unlike most industries, no major donor recognition companies have collapsed or merged as of today. The companies that will withstand this slowdown will do so because they are taking the necessary steps to offer creative approaches, trimming their pricing, and upgrading technology.

So what should an organization do?

Historically, formal donor recognition generally comes at the end of campaigns. With a rising number of capital campaigns “on ice” and a substantial increase in endowment and program-focused efforts, we believe donor recognition must embrace creativity, begin at the start of campaign efforts, and still adopt our “Rule of Seven.”

In essence, we contend that organizations must say “thank you” to donors in seven different public as well as quiet ways. We have always counseled our clients to thank donors throughout their campaigns – that waiting until the conclusion of a campaign is not effective and fraught with risk of disconnection. This is especially true in today’s environment.

Clearly, timely and frequent communication begins the Rule of Seven process. Think about:

  • personal letters and email blasts from the CEO, Board president, Campaign Leadership and other representatives;
  • monthly emails and campaign communication using Constant Contact or another such services;
  • inviting donors and leaders for honorable mentions at Board and other leadership meetings;
  • recognizing leaders and donors on your website to present a living example to your community about successful leadership.

Your organization should take into account these four standard suggestions and then frame three unique outreach methods of your own which reflect the personality of your donors and the organization.

Also, create defined, Board-approved Donor Recognition Policies that frame the agency’s approach, its adherence to the Rule of Seven, and expectations regarding payment. Generally, we suggest that at least 65% of a pledge be paid prior to names being unveiled on donor walls. But tell donors what the rules are ahead of time!

Remember the Rule of Seven, put things in writing and understand that success starts with good communication between donors and the causes they support. Always say “thank you” with sincerity and frequency . . . even if the donor wants anonymity to the public.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are regular contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of non-profits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.