Season 3, Episode 25
In this episode, co-founders Amy Eisenstein and Andrea Kihlstedt explore the intriguing realm of naming opportunities and donor recognition within capital campaigns.
Traditionally, naming opportunities have been a common way to honor major donors by putting their names on buildings, rooms, or spaces. However, times are changing, and organizations are beginning to question this practice. Is it the best way to recognize donors and align with an organization’s mission? Join us as we unravel the complexities and possibilities surrounding donor recognition.
Do you want your name on the wall of a building? You probably said no, but honestly, most people secretly do. So naming opportunities are a big deal for a capital campaign.
Hi, I am Amy Eisenstein. I’m here with my colleague and co-founder Andrea Kihlstedt, and today we are talking about naming opportunities and donor recognition within a capital campaign.
There’s lots of talk about naming opportunities these days, Andrea, with capital campaigns. So let’s talk about some of the thinking behind and how organizations might approach naming opportunities as they head into a campaign.
Questioning the Wisdom of Naming Opportunities
The traditional way of handling naming opportunities, Amy, is that people have an opportunity for certain giving levels to put their name on a room or a space or a building. And that, we’ve done that, that’s happened for many decades. You don’t have to go very far to see buildings that are named the John J. Smith building of this something or other hospital. I mean, these happen all the time.
But in recent times there are many organizations that are starting to question the wisdom of that. They ask, do they really want to be recognizing people primarily for the amount of money they give, and is that what they want to be putting front and center on the walls of their building?
So we’ve seen more and more organizations having pretty robust conversations about whether their organization wants to use the traditional naming opportunity procedure.
I think for today’s call the idea is not that those traditional naming opportunities are bad, but that organizations should take the time — that you should take the time to have a real conversation with your board about whether naming opportunities like that are appropriate for your organization and your mission. For some organizations they may be perfectly appropriate; for other organizations they may feel a little icky.
Start with a Conversation with Your Board Members
Yeah, I think that’s right. The important thing is to start with a conversation with your board. As you start thinking about your capital campaign and planning for it, one of the things that you’re going to need to figure out is how you’re going to both recognize donors, and in the context of donor recognition, will you be doing naming opportunities and plaqueing and thinking about those types of things.
And so step one, have the conversation with your board:
- What is the culture at your organization?
- Does it fit within the context of your mission?
- Does it make sense at your organization to think about naming the building?
Sometimes we’ve seen organizations renamed after a capital campaign, the John J. Smith Environmental Organization. So on the building, on rooms, then the organization, does it make sense to prominently feature some of your largest donors? Sometimes the answer is yes, as you said, sometimes the answer might be no.
Many Donors Won’t Mind a Lack of Naming Opportunities
Amy, I had an interesting experience with one of my clients recently. We got to putting together the campaign plan and this question of naming opportunities came up. And I told them what was a traditional approach, which is to come up with naming opportunities that roughly fit the levels of the gift range chart. The executive director said, “I’m not sure that fits the culture or mission of our organization. Let me take it to the board and have a discussion.”
And he did that. And he came back to me and he said, “Our board has decided that that way of recognizing people, by putting their names on the building or on rooms according to the level of their giving, doesn’t make sense for our organization and we don’t want to do it.”
I said, “Well, all right, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. This is a standard part of the business, but if you are clear, I’m willing to go with you down that road and we’re just going to get rid of the idea of naming rooms and spaces in honor of people because of the money they give.”
And they went on about their campaign. Well, lo and behold, throughout their campaign, while some people asked about naming opportunities, when they told them that they didn’t have naming opportunities because they didn’t feel that it reflected their values, not one donor complained, not one. They did not lose any gifts because they didn’t have naming opportunities.
Now, let me say that it wasn’t that they weren’t going to recognize donors. They were going to have a donor plaque in the main lobby of the building, so they were going to have recognition. They just weren’t going to name rooms or name wings or name the building itself in honor of donors. And many people said they’re never going to be able to succeed. Every other donor is going to complain about it, and that wasn’t their experience.
Interesting. I mean, it’s such a great story. We’re starting to hear more and more examples of things like that.
An Alternative Idea for Donor Recognition
There was another organization you worked with that decided instead of putting up the donor’s names, they were going to put up … It was a science museum and they put up scientists’ names. So the donor had a hand in picking which scientists they wanted to recognize and acknowledge. And some were probably famous scientists, but I think some were others at the organization, professors and leaders and things like that.
And so it was a really nice way they didn’t highlight the names of the donors, but they connected the recognition with the mission of the organization, and they let the donors have a hand in naming those rooms anyways.
Yeah. In that particular case, they actually in, small letters at the bottom of this … What they did was they created pretty good-sized plaques about the scientists that the donors had chose. And at the bottom of the plaque it said what family or what donor had chosen that scientist. So the donor’s name was there, but it wasn’t there in honor of how much money they had given.
Right. And it wasn’t the Smith Room, the donor, it was the Einstein Room, the scientist or whatever.
Yes, exactly. And then they had a great big wall of all the scientists that had been nominated by donors.
It made the mission of the organization front and center when it came to donor recognition, which I thought was a very clever idea. They actually raised a ton of money just through that donor wall idea. It was interesting.
Another Alternative to Traditional Naming Opportunities
Interesting. And one more example, as people, we get their wheels turning as we think about alternatives to donor recognition and traditional room-naming opportunities. Recently you worked with a client that’s going to tell a donor story on a plaque. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, that was interesting. We had a client where there was one family that had been involved in this organization from the very beginning. The organization was about 20 or 25 years old. And one family had been a significant supporter, actually through two generations, so this family had significantly supported the organization. And when it came to the capital campaign they made one of the largest gifts to the campaign. This family was amazing.
And when it came to the campaign, it was the son who had taken over the foundation and the son and the attorney, who had advised this family for years, were involved in making that campaign gift.
And there was some talk about whether they would want to name this center, this building, after that family. And that didn’t quite seem right. So instead of that, what they decided to do was to create a larger plaque on one fairly prominent wall of the new facility. And instead of having it a naming plaque, they told the story of that family’s involvement with the organization. How it had been multi-generational, and how from the very beginning, that family was solidly involved in the mission and making possible what this organization had grown into.
So it was more about a story of a mutual relationship than it was about, “We honor you because of your money,” which I thought was an interesting solution.
Right. The families served on the board and served on committees and volunteered, it’s not just the money. It’s that they’ve been involved for 25-plus years in the founding through this capital campaign, decades later.
Decades. And of course they could do that because there really was just … It was clear that this family stood out. They didn’t have 10 families like this. There was one family like that, that was clear, it was.
Right. So when we talk about changing naming opportunities specifically and donor recognition, we’re not suggesting getting rid of donor recognition, not at all. Donors will be recognized, they should be recognized. The question is how and in what forms and how to be creative and different and current in terms of the way the community and your organization thinks.
Using the Gift Range Chart as a Donor Recognition Tool
One of the things you mentioned in sort of an offhand comment but I want to come back to, is using the gift range chart as a guide for donor recognition. And I think that’s really important because for a variety of reasons, but one is that you don’t want donors to bargain about donor recognition.
You want to have clear policies, campaign policies that reflect donor recognition and connected to the gift range chart, so that everybody’s crystal clear about what’s happening in what circumstances. I think you don’t want to make it up as you go. You want it to be clear from the outset what’s happening.
Yeah. In fact, your donor recognition plan should be part of your campaign plan, which you should put in place before you start asking for those top gifts, so that you know what the plan is and you can put that out in front of donors and you’re not just winging it as you go.
It’s amazing what happens when you have a donor recognition plan that’s clear and that people understand and that makes logical sense. And yes, it does get built around the donor levels from the gift range chart. When you do that, then all of a sudden, the whole campaign sort of fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. It all sort of makes sense.
Flipping the Donor Wall on its Head
Amy, I have an idea that I’ve been wrangling with, so maybe we can leave people with this funny idea of mine. Whether or not you name spaces or wings or buildings in honor of donors, you probably will want to have a donor wall in the main lobby of your building that lists everybody who has given to your campaign, probably by giving level. Though some organization, you may decide to do it alphabetically instead, but you probably would do it by giving level.
And I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and because in just about every donor plaque I’ve ever seen, the largest gifts are on the left. You start with the largest gifts, the list of the largest gifts on the left. And then gradually you move to the right with a list of smaller gifts, because of course there are more and more gifts as the gifts are smaller. You have more and more names as you go. Or sometimes you start at the top, if it’s a top-down, you start at the top with a few largest gifts, and then you gradually you go down until you get to the bottom where a list of … lots of people who give.
And I’ve been sort of chuckling to myself by thinking about whether you could flip that on its head. Whether you might have all the smallest gifts at the top and the biggest gifts at the bottom, or whether you might have all the smallest gifts on the left and the largest gifts on the right.
Right. Yeah, I think there are lots of creative ways to do it. I’ve seen plenty of walls also where the biggest plaques are mixed in, or the bigger donor’s names are in bigger font and filled in with the smaller donors’ names. So it doesn’t have to be sort of in straight order, but the bigger donors generally are highlighted in some way. They’re on the left, they’re on the top, they’re in bigger font, whatever it is, so that they stand out more.
But you can think about how do you want to do that and how can you make it mission-focused. I think that’s the trend these days, is trying to figure out how can you connect donor recognition with the mission to make it work for your organization and your community and make it culturally sensitive.
And we haven’t even touched on recognizing volunteers, that’s probably another topic for another day, which I guess we should commit to right now. Campaign volunteer recognition that doesn’t have anything to do with money.
Final Thoughts – Recognizing Everyone
Amy, I once saw a campaign that decided that in addition to a donor wall, they were going to have visible recognition of everyone who was involved in the campaign. Everyone. And they were going to do that alphabetically, and they ran it in a freeze around the top of the wall.
So everyone’s name was there, you could go and find your name. It was mostly alphabetical, of course some came in at the end so it wasn’t quite perfect. But the idea was that they both had a listing of donors and they had a listing of people who had participated.
That’s a good idea.
All right, good. I hope we’ve given you food for thought. As always, this is to stimulate your thinking and your conversations around your board table and your committee table.
Don’t forget, I’ll leave you with this one idea. When you start thinking about donor recognition for your campaign, and you should do it early as a part of your campaign planning, be sure you take the time and the energy to have a robust conversation with your board about what’s appropriate for your organization. Don’t make an assumption without having a real conversation.
Right. We’ll see you next time.