Unintended Messages in Thanking!

October 12th, 2009

Unintended MessageThis picture is the result of an actual donor complaint. An elderly donor drove by the building named for her husband in order to show it to a friend. As soon as she returned home from her “drive-by”, she called Institutional Advancement. Her exact words to the Stewardship Manager, I did not overhear, yet I can imagine her chagrin. Suffice it to say that she felt that this building represents his legacy and in the past she found great comfort from seeing his name on it. And I do know she very pointedly asked questions as to the importance of his legacy to the university! It was, I was told, a difficult phone call to manage.


Although the length of time between her visits is evidenced by the amount of overgrowth in front of the letters, her sentiment cannot be ignored. The wife is right. The hidden donor name communicates a message to the viewer, even though unintended, about donor legacy and the long lasting importance of the man’s gift to the college. Naming Opportunities, by definition, mean long term relationships.

The bright side of this incident, though, has been the education that both the Donor Relations and the Facilities personnel underwent in tandem and at warp speed. The urgency to correct this situation, coupled with an immediate campus-wide recognition audit looking for any other “hot spots”, brought about a partnership between the campus departments. They suddenly understood the tangible importance in caring about the gift long after it is given.

The incident also highlighted the importance of one of the most often overlooked of the “Best Practices in Donor Recognition”. It is fundamentally vital to establish installation directives related to just the issues this photo presents:

• the pre-planned selection and placement of landscaping

• the careful use of graphic materials for maximized durability

• the creation of a “heads-up” reporting system to alert Facilities and Donor Relations personnel when something has gone awry.

Think before you thank. Look around your campus or facility. Are your donors being well-served by your recognition efforts? If you have pictures of humorous or horrifying thankings, please share them with us here; send them our way via “Comments” here in The Thanks Tank. We’ll keep it all anonymous. The idea is that each us can learn from the experiences of others.

Written by Robin E. Williams


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