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Giving and Recognition Societies - We Can Do Better!


by Lynne Wester (Donor Relations Guru)

I frequently say to my friends in donor relations that I would like to find the person who invented giving societies and give them a swift punch or two. I am of the opinion that great donor recognition does not hinge on giving societies.

I am also of the probably unpopular opinion that most donors are not motivated by their membership in a giving society. I have never seen statistical or empirical evidence in a single study that shows the ROI of a giving society or that the presence of recognition based giving societies moves giving upward. If someone has one, I’d pay to see it.

So what am I talking about here? Let’s share some common definitions…

  • Giving society: A group of folks who are recognized based on the level of their past annual support.
  • Recognition society: A group constructed to recognize those that have had certain behaviors with the organization -- loyalty, cumulative lifetime giving, having a deferred gift with an institution, etc.

Developing giving and recognition levels, associated benefits, and administering these benefits can be a cumbersome task. Many donor relations shops are overburdened by these ineffective practices. The multiple levels within societies create confusion and chaos for staff and donors alike. A great many of these constructs are artificial and not useful in engaging and recognizing donors. Many giving societies do not have distinct benefits and tangible value, especially in the light of quid pro quo violations and other such IRS fun.

So what do we do about it?

We need to sunset some of the giving societies and instead focus on donor relations and recognition based on behavior and not giving level.

For example, what are we doing for our loyal donors, for our married alumni, for those who have made the ultimate gift through planned giving? We need to recognize not just amounts of gifts (that is a purely reactive approach to donor recognition); we need to recognize giving behavior (that is a much more proactive and strategic approach). What happens when a lapsed donor comes back into the giving family? Are we recognizing behaviors or rewarding history?

  • Planned giving donors: What about creating webinars on financial planning and retirement resources? Are we meeting them in their reality or just sending them a paperweight for a desk that doesn’t exist?
  • Consecutive donors: What about inviting them to your donor recognition events, regardless of amounts? What about having someone who’s been working at the organization as long as they’ve been giving contact them?
  • First-time donors: How are we welcoming them? Phone call, card, what special recognition are they receiving? Are we telling their stories of why they give for the first time?

We have created artificial constructs to please what we think our donors want, but without ever involving them in the process. Instead, let’s concentrate on thanking our donors and telling them the impact their gifts have.

I think that’s where annual giving societies have often gone astray. Because we don't do a good job of telling the impact of unrestricted funds, we replace that with a coffee mug. But a truly philanthropic individual is not inspired to increase their giving because they get a new lapel pin. Caveat: There are certain development offices that have longstanding traditions of successful giving societies. These are the exceptions to the rule, and are usually found in elite liberal arts institutions or the Ivies.

What I find most often is that donors don't know what society they're in, don't know why it matters to them, and don't know the distinct benefits to being at that level. Caveat: The exception here is athletics recognition levels; athletics donors tend to know exactly what category they are in and most of that relates to ticket priority and other tangible perks.

Recognition and giving societies are best used to build donor retention and to recognize certain behaviors. They should not be used to supplant proper acknowledgment and stewardship and are in no means able to replace proper engagement opportunities. We can and must do betterl we can and must be better at meeting our donors’ needs without creating inauthentic means of recognition.

What are your thoughts? How do giving and recognition societies function in your organization? I welcome your comments by email:

Want to Hear More From Lynne Wester?

We recommend Lynne Wester's editorial "Why Honor Rolls for Donors are a Waste of Time," which has been one of our most-read articles in 2014, as well as her recent book The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations, a comprehensive guide to donor relations for your shop that will help transform the way you steward, recognize, and engage your donors.

Lynne Wester will also be speaking at these upcoming Academic Impressions events:

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About the Authors

Lynne Wester

Lynne is a frequent conference speaker and a well-known resource for donor relations and fundraising. She has been featured in The Washington Post, CURRENTS magazine, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and other industry publications. Lynne also created the website and blog where she shares her expertise, opinions, and collections of samples on a variety of topics to the greater development world and hosts a monthly webinar series.

Using her hands-on approach, Lynne works with many organizations to help them keep their focus donor driven, technology savvy, strategic, and always with a splash of good humor. She received her undergraduate degrees from the University of South Carolina and is a loyal gamecock alumna, donor, and fan, and holds a master's in strategic fundraising and philanthropy with an emphasis in higher education.

Other AI Contributions:

The 4 Pillars of Donor Relations

End of Fiscal Year: Donors Don't Care

Investing in Donor Relations for Athletics

Giving and Recognition Societies - We Can Do Better!

Checklist: Is Your Online Giving Site Donor-Friendly?