“Buying Legacy”: Donors RARELY give for self-serving reasons!

November 11th, 2009

A recent Bloomberg article blew my mind!  It’s titled, Getting Your Name on a Building Gets Cheaper as Non-Profits Compete. The article considers the possibility that donors may be able to negotiate gift amounts for naming opportunities during this economic crisis. True enough.  Yet it also calls the act of giving “the price for immortality,” claiming that donors “buy” recognition.  Nowhere in the article is there any mention of the basic tenet that donors give out of passion for a cause and that they do so to advance the mission of the organization.  I’m offended on behalf of all philanthropists and fundraisers.  I can only hope that the fundraising consultants mentioned in the article were misquoted to serve the author’s sarcastic premise.

I entered my career in donor recognition as a skeptic.  Putting big names on buildings seemed braggadocious.  I am self-aware enough to know that jealously played into my cynical attitude in two ways: 1) there are those with enough money to garner a naming opportunity and 2) my Christian heritage fed an inclination to advance a more modest approach to giving.  However, now that I recognize the motivating factors for philanthropy, and more importantly, the benefits of recognition for the organization itself, I fully understand and proactively support the crucial importance of donor recognition.

Donor recognition is, of course, one way, among many, to thank a donor.  Research indicates what matters most to donors is proof that the gift is doing what it is meant to do, as opposed to “seeing one’s name in lights”.  The truth is that donor recognition (plaques, displays, big letters on the side of the building) delivers far more to the organization than to the donor.  Public recognition of donors communicates a tradition of giving within a community, and establishes a culture where the need for philanthropy is understood and fostered.

The organization has an obligation to itself – not the donor – to tell the story of the gift… in order to get the next gift.

I vote we call out cynics like Bloomberg writer Alexis Leondis.  Let’s leave her ilk to snarking over financial news instead.  Philanthropy is an art, and it may take a connoisseur to understand the nuances of why donors give and what the appropriate responses from the organization are to be.

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