Although it’s a constant necessity for all types of nonprofit fundraising, donor recognition is an especially important part of capital campaigns.

These large-scale undertakings completely change how your organization pursues its mission, and generous supporters—major donors, sponsors, and other institutional funders—contribute the vast majority of campaign donations. The sheer scale of their impact on your nonprofit’s work means their support deserves gratitude.

However, after all the events of 2020, it’s worth pausing and thinking carefully about your nonprofit’s recognition strategies.

After all, we’re entering a new era of fundraising, so it’s a natural time for reflection and change. Nonprofits are taking stock of their strategies, considering their communities, and experimenting to make their campaigns their own in all kinds of new ways.

This spirit of experimentation and flexibility should extend to every aspect of your capital campaign from start to finish. But we want to hone in specifically on major donor recognition.

We’ll share our thoughts on why and how organizations might choose to upgrade their thank-you tactics.

The Traditional Approach to Recognition

Traditionally, many organizations honor their major donors and capital campaign contributors with physical recognition displays. Popular examples include donor walls, plaques, statues, and other installations in your nonprofit’s headquarters or on your grounds.

These will always be excellent choices for many capital campaigns. Their tangibility and permanence reflect your organization’s gratitude and the massive impact that major supporters have on your mission.

Going a step beyond donor walls, big-scale naming opportunities are also a traditional way to honor a campaign’s most impactful donors, corporate sponsors and funders, and other contributors. These involve naming your new building, wing, or facility after a lead donor. Think large standalone plaques, busts, and big bold names above the door.

Naming opportunities are common among larger nonprofit institutions conducting capital campaigns for construction or renovation projects—hospitals, universities, and the like. Importantly, these are often nonprofits that play important roles in their communities as hubs of activity, economic drivers, and service providers.

What Are You Emphasizing?

How you honor your most important supporters tells two stories:

  • One about your gratitude and your donors’ impact
  • Another, more subtextual story about your organization’s values

Think of it this way: Campaign naming opportunities show your community who your organization honors and how you honor them. Taken together, your donor recognition displays and named buildings essentially communicate your organization’s values and priorities—to anyone who encounters them, not just the named individual.

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate this idea and how it can affect your organization’s perception in the community. Years ago, my husband was working as a professor at a small liberal arts college. One day, as our kids played in the yard with two neighbor children, both of whom were African American, my husband called asking me to bring him some lecture notes that he’d forgotten at home that morning.

I loaded all four kids into the car for the drive across town to the college. When we arrived, I gave the kids strict instructions to stay in the large College Center atrium while I ran up to my husband’s office.

When I got back a few minutes later, the neighbor children excitedly explained that they’d “figured out who owns this building,” pointing to a large bronze plaque and relief sculpture of two white men, prominent philanthropists and supporters of the college. My own kids were very familiar with this upscale academic space and had never before noticed or acknowledged the plaque, but the neighbors had never been here before.

Their misunderstanding was eye-opening for me. It raised three questions:

  1. Who deserved to be centered in this space?
  2. Did the plaque and sculpture convey the wrong message?
  3. Who “owned” this space? Philanthropists or the college community as a whole?

The troubling aspect of this experience didn’t stem from the fact that the college honored its generous supporters who made the building possible. Rather, it’s more about how those donors were recognized, in this case, in a way that seemingly centered their wealth, power, and position.

The bottom line is that campaign naming opportunities, whether intentionally or not, show your entire community who or what you choose to emphasize. They can inherently imply power and status, which can be incongruous with what you’re actually trying to accomplish.

This issue is more relevant than ever; many institutions of all sizes needed to reckon with the implications of their naming and recognition habits for the first time in 2020 and into 2021. And as the nonprofit and advocacy sectors lead the charge into a more equitable world, it’s worth thinking deeply about if you’re planning a capital campaign of your own.

Alternative Approaches: 3 Tips

At the Capital Campaign Toolkit, we try to recommend more mission-centric naming and recognition alternatives to our nonprofit clients. After all, your mission and your community are what drive your organization. Donors certainly play critical roles, but you don’t exist to honor them. Here are 3 tips to consider:

1. Consider the essentials of your space and recognition plans.

Start by thinking about the function of the space where you plan to add a recognition display. Your installation should contribute to the space’s value and/or coherently fit with its function. When you do this, it’s a win for everyone: your donors, your organization, and everyone who visits and sees it.

For example, a children’s museum full of bright colors and playful exhibits likely wouldn’t put a stately, stoic bronze bust front and center in their lobby. Doing so could be confusing for visitors, and it’s a missed opportunity to create a display that actively improves their experience, complements the overall tone of the mission, and creates a more engaging, immersive atmosphere.

After considering the nature of your space, hammer down exactly what you want your recognition display to say about your organization.

That it’s energetic and youthful? That it’s laid-back but deeply mission-driven? That it’s a proud, long-standing institution in your community?

Next, what does this identity say about your values? Is it in line with the values that you want donors to associate with your organization? If not, or if the association is unclear, brainstorm ways that your recognition plans could actively support and convey your stated values.

This reflective exercise can be tricky, but it can also be extremely valuable for your organization and its long-term relationships. Remember, capital campaigns and major construction projects only come every decade or so, so there’s no excuse not to think carefully about every aspect.

2. Come up with a more mission-centric twist.

As you think about your space, your organization’s identity, and how your display can reflect it, keep your mission front of mind. You can’t go wrong when you anchor your recognition strategy in your mission. After all, it’s what drives your organization and ultimately motivates donors to give in the first place.

Here are two examples we’ve seen:

  • A community theater recognized its donors who gave over a set threshold by allowing them to choose their favorite quotes from plays. On the donor recognition wall, the quotes take center stage with the donors’ names underneath in smaller text.
  • A science center allowed donors to choose their favorite scientists from history to be featured on their individual recognition plaques in the lobby. This made for an engaging, mission-centric display that actively contributed to the value of the space’s core purpose.

The exact route you choose to take will naturally vary based on your recognition goals, the space you’re filling, and the work that your nonprofit does, but the main idea is to integrate impact and mission in a tangible way.

Rooting your design choices and recognition options in your mission makes thanking your donors even more meaningful. This way, you can deepen donor relationships while also making your organization’s space a more immersive, mission-centric experience for visitors.

3. Consider all your recognition options.

There’s no one way to create a donor recognition display. Get creative and flexible, and definitely don’t feel locked into a single approach because it’s what first comes to mind. Recognition walls and installations come in an extremely wide variety of forms and designs.

The best piece of advice we can give? Talk to your donors. If you’ve never conducted a large-scale campaign before or built a recognition display for major donors, the process of proactively discussing recognition preferences is also a valuable training exercise for your development staff.

During your campaign, talk to your donors about how they would or wouldn’t like to be recognized. You might also ask how they might like to get involved like the donors did in the earlier examples. Get a sense of their general comfort levels, and then come up with a recognition or naming strategy in line with your mission, identity, and goals, as discussed above.

Most importantly, don’t automatically assume that they want to be recognized, if at all, in one particular way. This could even mean no name plaques at all; some donors simply aren’t interested in public forms of recognition or naming opportunities. If this is the case for your campaign’s donors, there are two general routes you can take:

  1. Don’t create a public recognition display at all. Save the money, and focus even more heavily on how you can privately thank your donors as individuals, which you should be doing anyway.
  2. Take the opportunity to create a more celebratory display rather than one centered on recognizing donors. Create an impactful public installation that celebrates your mission, community, and history, while also improving your community’s interactions with your nonprofit.

This second option will be even more meaningful for larger audiences of visitors than a traditional recognition display. Plus, you can still build spots into it that could be filled with inscribed donor names for future campaigns.

And even if you discover during your capital campaign’s quiet phase that your major donors aren’t particularly interested in recognition, you’ll have plenty of time to figure out more personal and meaningful alternatives for individuals.

Donor recognition can be tricky. Who you honor, why, and how all tell stories about your nonprofit, its identity, and your community.

As we continue adapting to a changing world and nonprofit sector, thoughtfulness and flexibility will be key. What do you want your recognition strategies to say about your nonprofit? How do naming opportunities fit into those goals? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, which is kind of the point—no two missions, communities, or individual donors are the same, and your recognition strategies should reflect your unique context and stated values.

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About the Authors

Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE, and Andrea Kihlstedt are co-founders of the Capital Campaign Toolkit, a virtual support system for nonprofit leaders running successful campaigns. The Toolkit provides all the tools, templates, and guidance you need — without breaking the bank.