Is Donor Recognition Really That Useful?

March 30, 2016

Why do we things the way we do? It’s a question we sometimes forget to ask ourselves, but it’s an important one.  In this series, we’ll be asking a fundraising question that might seem simple, and looking to a Good Worker and a guest for their thoughts. There are no right answers here, but we hope we get your fundraising gears turning!

In this episode, Fraser Green goes to bat on the topic of  donor recognition. He’ll be taking on Charles O’Neill, Charitable Giving Advisor over at the QEII Foundation

Take it away, you two!

QUESTION: Is donor recognition an effective fundraising strategy?

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FRASER:

Charles, I fundamentally believe that fundraisers like you spend way too much time and energy on donor recognition. Now I’ve been listening to donors in focus groups for years, and very, very few express any interest in whether or how they’re publicly acknowledged for their gift – or whether they become a member of some sort of legacy society or elite donor club.

I believe that donors make bequests to express their beliefs and values, to complete their own ‘autobiographies’ and to leave a positive footprint on this world when their time on this earth is done.

Rather than being recognized and made a fuss over, I believe that donors want to know that the charity they’ve chosen continues to advance its mission, to spend donated dollars carefully and to show positive results in making the world a better place.

Rather than public recognition, I believe that the vast majority of bequest donors actually want confidentiality and privacy. To many, this is an act of spiritual faith, and drawing attention to one’s self diminishes the gift’s nobility. Plus, many older donors (who, after all, are the ones making bequests) don’t want every other charity in town getting wind of their gift and knocking on their door. This is borne out both by focus group work we’ve done at Good Works and by research I conducted a number of years ago where, of 3,000 bequests studied, only 9% of the donors had informed the charity of the gift.

So Charles, from my side of the street, stay focused on persuading donors to make bequests. Don’t get sidetracked by a lot of donor recognition work that doesn’t actually raise any money!

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CHARLES:

Fraser, Fraser.  Spoken like a true consultant.  Always dealing in absolutes.  We fundraisers however, live and breathe in a murky world of grey.  It is not a question of whether to “fuss over” a donor with recognition opportunities, or not.  It is a question of degree.  I whole-heartedly agree with you; we can spend too much time and money on recognition strategies.  Bequest donors give quietly, often for the most personal of reasons.  Most care not a whit about the 1896 Founder’s Circle Club black tie gala, or any other seemingly contrived public recognition.

What they do care about is knowing their bequest will be put to good use some day.  Thanking them and letting them know how their future gift will make a difference is not just a polite thing to do; it can open the door to other possibilities.  It can result in increased annual giving, a larger bequest if revising their will, an additional outright gift, or converting the bequest into an immediate gift.

Research indicates donors write their last will three or four years before their death.   At that moment an organization will be kept in or taken out.  I’m willing to bet that an organization that learned of a bequest expectancy 10 years ago, and that did not continue meaningful contact with the donor during the intervening years, is at great risk of the latter.

The relationship dance is not a three-minute waltz; it ebbs and flows for a lifetime.  So Fraser, focus on persuading donors to arrange bequests, absolutely!  But neglect at your peril those faithful donors who took the extraordinary step of telling you that your organization is in their will.  Treat them with the quiet respect they deserve.

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Now it’s over to you, our lovely reader! What’s the verdict? What did they miss? What do you think? Let us know down below!

2 thoughts on “Is Donor Recognition Really That Useful?

  1. Such a fundamental element (donor nurture) of any financial development program. Personally, I have a number of charities that I like to support – and plan to support – and I am influenced in the extent to which I provide support by my perception of the charity’s appreciation and communicated needs for support.

  2. What about donor recognition not specific to legacy gifts? I feel this focused on that. I’d like the same question posed about a current/active donor?

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Fraser Green

Fraser Green

Former political campaigner and current fundraising strategist with a knack for understanding how audiences will react to messages.