Giving and Recognition Societies – We Can Do Better!

Giving Recognition Societies - Image of Colored Envelopes

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 better. We can and must be better at meeting our donors’ needs without creating inauthentic means of recognition.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash.

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