Donor Recognition Is More Than A Trinket

May 15, 2010       Kate Rogers      

Windrush Farm Therapeutic Equitation, a horse farm in Boxford, Mass., runs its Stars Program each holiday season. Donors buy a star, write a message on it and use it to decorate a Christmas tree.

The Stars Program opted for a viral campaign this past year, allowing it to expand and inspire, resulting in a 30-percent increase in money raised. Jennifer Tartaglia, director of development at Windrush Farm, said the charity raised $4,000 through the use of a Memsaic virtual fundraising wall, a new take on the age-old model of donor bricks. Memsaic gives donors a chance to contribute to a cause and personalize their donation with pictures and messages on the $10 and $15 “bricks” they buy online.

Every nonprofit wants to recognize donors in some way, shape or form. Most of the time the recognition is in the form of one of the old, tried and true trinkets. Technology is starting to have more of a say in the process, the virtual wall being such as an example.

“It generated sales because people saw the photos and messages uploaded,” Tartaglia said. “It generates buzz by being able to upload pictures of pets, family members it’s a really neat way to touch a new base.”

Virtual walls are a unique opportunity to acknowledge donors who give smaller contributions. “It’s definitely helpful for lower amounts, that you get to recognize everyone,” Tartaglia said. Creator Matthew Friedman first developed the idea for virtual fundraising walls when helping his son with a school fundraising project selling gift-wrap. Despite the school and students’ efforts, they were only able to make 37 cents on the dollar. Nonprofits can create and implement their own virtual fundraising wall for free, and push it out through social networking sites.

“This is a feel good product,” said Deborah O’Connor, director, strategic accounts, at Memsaic in Marblehead, Mass. “It’s a way to have a personal connection between a donor and a cause. It’s really a win-win for smaller organizations too, because we are only successful if they are successful.” In the three years Memsaic has been in operation, it has created approximately 180 virtual fundraising walls, each raising an average $1,400 per wall, Friedman said.

Electronic donor recognition has been a hot topic for some fundraisers, according to Jerry DeFoe, manager of stewardship and donor relations at Stony Brook University Medical Center in Stony Brook, N.Y. The center considered an electronic display early on in discussions about recognizing donors to the medical center. DeFoe said they settled on glass plaques for a donor wall based on the aesthetics and a “sense of permanence.” Installation coincided with a major modernization of the lobby this past summer.

At Mitchell Associates, which is primarily a design firm staffed with architects and fabricators, Bill Endicott said the trend in donor recognition is leaning toward electronic elements and newer technology as opposed to plainer pieces. Clients might want the opportunity to acknowledge a larger number of donors, or change names systematically, and electronic walls present a unique solution. However, electronic elements don’t appear as lasting as other donor recognition designs. “Doing an entire electronic wall screen loses the permanent feeling that major donors want,” said Endicott, principal at the Wilmington, Del.-based firm. “They are nice for supplemental changes, but not the ideal solution.”

The firm is working with the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Ill., blending signs and mural work into a larger donor recognition piece to be completed in 2012. The average project takes approximately one year from conception to installation, and costs between $10,000 and $300,000, Endicott said.

Time Limits

Terry Burton, president of Windsor, Ontario-based Dig In Research, said namesake donors and limited term naming rights, rather than in perpetuity, are becoming more common.

Namesake donors who previously made a big gift to an organization are making second and third gifts, along with direct and extended family stepping up and making gifts because the matriarch or patriarch made a gift years ago. “It’s now becoming multi-generational,” he said.

“Limited term naming rights help us to have different and other conversations with major gift prospects,” said Burton. “Perpetuity naming rights has always been a short conversation — yes or no. But now they can say, We can do this or that.’”

Limited term naming rights have gained traction during the past five years, with arts and culture organizations way ahead of the game. “We’re at that unique time in history where more than a quarter of the nonprofit sector is starting to get it, that they need to do things a little differently.” Burton said. Early adopters are bringing in more limited term naming rights than those in perpetuity, he said.

What’s important for nonprofits to remember in this economy is that designs can be created for an entire project, but then implemented in phases, according to Eric Ascalon, vice president and general manager of Ascalon Studios Inc. in West Berlin, N.J. “There’s significant savings there,” he said, adding designs also can be fitted for future expansion.

He estimates project costs have seen an average 10-percent decline during the past two years. “That’s reflected in the scope of how complicated projects are,” said Ascalon, who counts Stony Brook among his clients.

Renderings also can help market the piece to major donors, becoming an incentive to give years before the installation of any structure as opposed to an organization that completed a capital campaign and goes back to recognize donors.

The project cost can range from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on what’s involved, Ascalon said. A hospital project that would include some centralized donor recognition, such as a lobby donor recognition piece and then recognition throughout the building in different locations, could run from $40,000 to $80,000.

“The key is to not be ostentatious about it,” Ascalon said, while creating something that draws people in and gives attention to donors, “not just getting a bunch of plaques on the wall, but something that adds and blends in with the facility.”

The goal of donor recognition is more about incentive. “The organization is undertaking the recognition to serve as an incentive for further generous giving,” Ascalon said.

Remember this?

Crafting donor recognition pieces that won’t end up in someone’s junk drawer is also a lofty goal. Fundraisers are seeking “something different that connects with people,” said Karen Singer, artistic director of Philadelphia, Pa.-based Karen Singer Tileworks.

With some nonprofits facing the prospect of laying off employees, organizations don’t want to come off as being frivolous with spending. “It’s hard to do something splashy when you’ve had to let go staff. On the other hand, your fundraising effort is part of what keeps the whole thing going,” Singer said.

Over time, donor recognition has become more like artwork, and less cookie cutter in design. Endicott said his firm began doing donor recognition pieces to fit specifically with a client’s interior design, as opposed to creating a standard donor recognition wall to fill the halls of hospitals and schools.

“Clients want personalized recognition, and they want it coordinated with the look of their interior space,” he said. “They are looking to fit donor recognition into an overall theme.”

Doylestown Hospital in Doylestown, Pa., which recently completed a four-year, $16-million capital campaign for a new emergency department, incorporated a mural with water in it, playing out the water theme in several ways. Stones in the riverbank feature engraved names of $100,000 donors and carry the water theme throughout the display.

“Think of your recognition as part of the artwork for the space,” said Linda Plank, vice president for development. “By integrating the space in this way, using tile or other artwork, it makes it an interesting feature for people,” she said.

Plank wished there were more naming opportunities, as they sold out, recognizing all $25,000 donors and up in the ER department, with almost every room and space named. The key, she said, was planning the recognition immediately, when they began fundraising.

Keeping What You Have

Recognition is a retention issue, too. “More of the issue that comes up is funding for these types of things because budgets have been cut or donor giving has slacked off. What we’re actually finding is, many return customers are not backing down from donor retention programs because they can’t decrease what they’re doing to thank them,” said Lee Rush, marketing eecutive at ChemArt in Providence, R.I.

“We’re seeing people actually going for something that’s a little more high perceived value to retain those donor levels. What we’re seeing is the opposite of what you’d expect to see. There’s more passion and fervor for keeping donor recognition programs,” she said.

Steve Rum, senior associate vice president for development and alumni relations at the Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine, knows just what a well-designed donor recognition piece can do for a nonprofit. A modest benefactor saw a creatively designed donor recognition wall at the Baltimore, Md., medical center and proceeded to give a seven-figure gift, Rum said.

“He was just blown away by the way we did things, and how we creatively recognize all benefactors,” he said. A donor recognition area, like the piece recently finished by Mitchell in Johns Hopkins Medical Education building, is important not only to the donors but to the facility’s reputation, he added. “All medical students will be in this building for a majority of their life here, and it is highly trafficked with teachers and speakers,” Rum said. “With that in mind, we want people to see how much thought we put into this as soon as they enter the building. It’s more of a ‘wow-stop’ moment that tells a story and brings the pedestrian in. It’s not just a wall of names.”

In a rough economy, Endicott said many nonprofits are looking for affordable, creative solutions that cater toward an increasingly technology-hungry society.

“When I started in the business you had brass, bronze and stone,” he said. “Today you have video, LED lights and more. I’m not sure if we will have 3-D, but who knows?”  NPT