A User’s Guide to Donor Recognition Levels

Siobhan Aspinall

By Siobhan Aspinall 

(This post originally appeared on Siobhan Aspinall’s blog :
F is for Fundraising.)

There are two issues at play here. First, do donors really care about our recognition names/levels/circles/clubs? Does this recognition drive loyalty and gift size? And second, what can the charity actually offer for each level so that it isn’t just a made-up name with no substance?

Luckily, I’ve got some strong opinions on this!

Do donors care about the recognition level we assign them?

Yup! Although I’d say the vast majority of donors have no idea they have been grouped together in a specific way. Some organizations have even taken to using a single list, without sorting donors by giving level. This is meant to illustrate that every gift is of equal value, which of course isn’t true and I’ll bet your donors know it.

Personally, I am part of the crowd that’s proud to see how my gifts compare to others. This is basic human nature and can inspire increased giving among a community of peers. This works very well with major gifts and the corporate world in particular. At United Way for example, companies would sometimes base their gift level on where the competition appeared in the donor list.

But that’s the corporate scene. Individuals are a bit different. I believe they still like the recognition, but are trained by polite society to insist that they don’t. One exception I have seen are the six-figure philanthropists: there are some people in this group who are more likely to link giving to recognition. I think this has to do with the legacy-sized gifts they are giving. If you made a six-figure gift, you’d probably expect your name on a building, not a pen with the charity’s logo.

Unfortunately, there’s no-one doing good research on this, because you’d have to test organizations with a control group of donors who get no recognition while their peers end up with their names in lights. Not cool. Otherwise, you’re just asking people to report what they’d prefer, and then you get the notorious conflict between what people say they’ll do and what they actually respond to.

What can/should the charity offer?

I had a great conversation about this over beer with a colleague recently. Her problem is common: she’s at a small charity with no naming opportunities, and one of her more generous donors is asking about recognition. Ack!

At this point, you could spend a year perfecting catchy names for your great giving level chart. (We will name them after candy! Precious metals! Famous philosophers!) Personally, I find this to be a giant time-waster if there is no concrete recognition tied to the levels in the first place. Start with what you have to offer, and play around with your charts and categories later!

Back to my colleague. Like most of us, she does not have a lot to work with. She’s got a small online community, a basic website with modest traffic, and a project-based program inappropriate for naming. What she does have is a spiffy event. So the question is: Can you recognize a donor in a way that has no link to where his funding went? For example, recognizing a project donor at an event he didn’t sponsor? And what if there are already event sponsors needing recognition space at the event? The short answer: Go for it!

Use whatever opportunities you have, whenever you have them, to recognize your highest donors. Don’t feel that the recognition perks need to match up with the gift designation. Recognition is not stewardship – it does not have to be linked to outcomes. Rather, it’s a public celebration of the donor’s generosity and a challenge to his peers and the community at large to step up.

Want to know more about what really drives our decisions? Check out this mind-blowing video, the Science of Persuasion.

P.S. A big shout-out to Helen for working through this topic with me!

Siobhan Aspinall, CFRE has been fundraising for over 15 years for non-profit organizations including the Canadian Cancer Society, the David Suzuki Foundation and United Way. She teaches two fundraising courses at BCIT, consults, and is an active member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. She holds a BA in languages from UBC and an Associate Certificate in Fundraising Management from BCIT. She obtained her Certified Fundraising Executive designation in 2013. In her spare time, she writes for her fundraising blog and surfs in Tofino.

Siobhan Aspinall
Sand Dollar Consulting
siobhanaspinall@gmail.com
www.siobhanaspinall.com

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