Recognizing Donors: A Blessing and A Challenge

A few days ago I received an inquiry from a colleague who works at one of the large non-profit organizations in Israel. He asked me about “the rules” guiding the acknowledgement and recognition of contributions and gifts from donors. His questions were about the difference between a contribution to a capital (building) campaign and a donation providing support for an on-going program.

When an organization raises funds for a new building or renovating existing offices there are a variety of ways to acknowledge the contributions received. During the planning of the capital campaign the volunteer leadership and the professional are able to work together to identify naming opportunities. A naming opportunity refers to the placement of donors’ names on the building; on rooms in the building; on special facilities or equipment. The decision has to be made on what is the appropriate level contribution for each naming opportunity.

Gifts to capital campaign can be recognized by creating a donor wall at the entrance to the facility. This is a list of all the names of the donors who supported the project. When planning a donor wall it is common to assign titles to the levels of the contributions received. Titles such as “Founder”, “Builder”, “Supporter”, “Contributor” and “Friend” can be used to indicate the level of the gift. The various levels of gifts depend on the number of contributors that are in each category and the potential for attracting donors to these categories in the future.

If there is one donor who gave one million dollars to the campaign and the agency does not expect additional donors who will be contributing this amount then the category could reflect this reality. For example, in such a case the “Founders” would be those people, funders, or foundations who contributed $ 100,000 or more. It would be not appropriate to establish a category for million dollar gifts. Of course, recognition such as this would be in addition to a naming opportunity.

At the same time there needs to be a way to say thank you to the donor who gives $ 1,000. Although there might not be a possibility of memorializing someone or honoring someone with a smaller gift, there needs to be a meaningful and appropriate way to give credit to the donor for the gift.

Acknowledging a gift made to a capital campaign is not difficult and the challenge is finding the most appropriate way. There are the donors that want a name assigned to a building or a room, and there are donors who absolutely insist on anonymity. The process of discussing naming with the donor has to be diplomatic and display a great deal of sensitivity.

Often we lose sight of the fact that the discussion of an appropriate way to acknowledge contributions can be a deal maker or breaker in regards to future gifts. When donors feel the organization has been appreciative of the contribution through adequately recognizing it then they are ready to consider making additional gifts in the future. If they have the feeling that their contributions are not perceived as significant and the agency does not seem to need the funds then the organization may not receive additional contributions in the future.

The blessing is in receiving the funds and having the opportunity to acknowledge the contributor’s generosity. The name on the building or the plaque on the wall is appropriate for a one time capital gift or the establishment of an endowment fund for the organization that will exist for many years.

How do we recognize support for specific programs and activities?

A donor may want to fund a specific program during the course of a year and the support might be for one year. Following the donor’s experience a decision will be made about subsequent years. It is appropriate to acknowledge the gift on printed material that is used to advertise the program or in communications that are sent out about the program. For example, if it is a program for new mothers at a Jewish community center, then it could be called “The so and so program for the year 2011”. On printed material the following would be added, “We would like to acknowledge the generous contribution of “so and so” that is sponsoring the program this year.”

When the donor feels appreciated then it is quite possible that they will be interested in continuing to sponsor the program from year to year. The donor can also be given the option of endowing the program and this would provide a naming opportunity. There could be interest in naming the program as a memorial or for honoring a family member.

In each of these examples the volunteer leader or the professional staff member who is soliciting the donor has to discuss the recognition of the gift. It has to be the donor’s decision whether they want the gift publicly acknowledged, and it is the organization’s role to make suggestions as to how this can be done if so desired. For some donors a thank you letter is sufficient, and for other donors they would like to be an example and let people know how they have strengthened the community through their support of local agencies and services.

By finding the most appropriate and meaningful way to recognize the donor’s investment in the organization providing services to the community we are also inviting others to participate. Thus, we are not only interested in the contributions received to date but we are also focusing on letting potential donors know how we show our appreciation.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.