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Donor Recognition: Thinking Like a Donor

Resource Center - Foundation

(Feb. 9, 2009) The value of recognizing your donors goes far beyond showing appreciation for a gift. Recognition can motivate donors to be strong and lasting supporters of your organization.

“Donors will tell you that they don’t want recognition for their gift, but often that is what they think that they are supposed to say—that they gave without wanting something in return,” says Janet Hedrick, CFRE, senior associate at Bentz Whaley Flessner in Arlington, Va. “But people look for their name in print and on wall displays. They appreciate recognition that is appropriate.” Appropriate recognition, Hedrick explains, may mean holding a simple reception with a donor’s family and friends, rather than making a highly publicized announcement.

It’s a matter of seeing recognition through the eyes of the donor. If you recognize everyone for everything then it loses its meaning altogether, Hedrick says. “Recognition should be prestigious, awarded to a limited number of people. It motivates people to give more and become part of a special group.”

Hedrick, who is the author of a new book from the AFP Fund Development Series, Effective Donor Relations, believes an important function of recognition is that it motivates people to give in the first place, and then acts as an incentive to continue support year to year. But, she says, recognition that is not well thought out could actually act as a “ceiling” for a donor’s giving level.

The Right Incentive

“I’ve heard of organizations offering ‘lifetime membership’ to donors who give $10,000. That will motivate someone to give at that level, but what if they are capable of giving much more? And what is their motivation to give in the future?”  It is critical to think through the structure of giving clubs and understand how donors see the recognition levels, Hedrick says.

A well-planned recognition program motivates donors to give more by incorporating the recognition from the beginning—such as showing an illustration of the donor wall or other display before it has been created. This allows donors to see how they can leave their mark. Likewise, a plaque that contains placeholders for giving in future years often motivates donors to give every year. After all, they don’t want to show a gap in their support. “I’ve heard of donors actually calling and asking for the year tag. It’s important to them to show continuity,” Hedrick explains.

She has also had a donor ask her why his name is not up on the wall display. “I gave the same amount they did,” he told her, “so why is my name not with theirs?” This shows the difference between how a fundraiser sees recognition and how a donor sees it, Hedrick says. “Donors don’t always distinguish between different fundraising campaigns, such as annual or capital; they don’t divide up gifts the same way we do.” Recognizing cumulative giving over the course of a year, rather than recognizing annual or capital giving, may be more appropriate from the donor’s perspective, she says.

Donors are definitely paying attention to the way they stack up to their peers. The good side of this, of course, is that donors will often ask up front, “How much do I have to give to have my name here.” Above all, recognition should never be an afterthought, Hedrick says. Instead of simply being a reward or a polite exercise, it becomes a motivator—an active part of good donor cultivation.

Register today for Janet Hedrick’s upcoming AFP Web/Audioconference, “Introducing ‘Donor Touchpoint Management’ – A Marketing Approach to Donor Relations” happening Feb. 26.

The book Effective Donor Relations, by Janet Hedrick, is now available in the AFP Bookstore.

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