Essential Elements Of A Donor Recognition Program

September 10, 2002 – by Gayle L. Gifford

For many organizations, designing a successful benefit/recognition program to inspire donors and recognize their giving is a challenge that can be fraught with danger.

Too often, organizations feel that they must lavish upon major donors all kinds of expensive presents and increasingly expensive modes of acknowledgement in exchange for their donations.

An earlier article that discussed the excellent research outlined in “The Seven Faces of Philanthropy,” Prince and File’s seminal book on major donor motivation, noted that different donors are motivated by different things. While some crave recognition, others are serious when they tell you not to give them anything.

At their core, benefit programs are about fulfilling our donors’ giving aspirations and providing tangible, and often public, appreciation for their commitment to our cause.

As we compete with other organizations to find ever more clever ways to recognize our donors, we run the risk of losing sight of the objectives of these programs for our organizations.

So let’s review what a successful donor benefit and recognition program should accomplish and see how your organization’s program measures up.

Do you want your donor benefits/recognition program to:

* Make donors feel sincerely thanked for their generosity and support for your mission? It’s amazing — and really quite distressing — how frequently nonprofits simply forget to say thank you. Never mind that your donor cannot take a tax-deduction for any gift over $250 if they don’t receive a written acknowledgement of the gift from your organization.

* Provide your donors with the public recognition that they desire and value? For some donors, that might be a press conference announcing their gift. For others, it might mean respecting their wish to remain anonymous.

* Inspire these same donors to give again – at higher and higher levels of support? Maybe your donor isn’t ready to support that named scholarship fund this year. But if the recognition or the gift really matters to the donor, together you can work out a satisfying alternative, including exploring opportunities for a bequest.

* Deepen donor commitment to and understanding of your mission and organization? Compare that personal, behind-the-scenes exploration of your museum where you can excite your donor with the depth of your collection — as well as your lack of exhibit space — with a present of another item from your gift shop. Which of these has the potential for building more long-term donor support?

* Encourage or challenge other donors or potential donors to match the giving of their peers? A little competition might just be healthy for your program. As Prince and File tell us, achieving recognition within their own peer group helps to motivate a number of major givers.

* Set benchmarks for giving to your organization? Too often, donors don’t give at higher amounts because we simply failed to set their sights high enough.

* Reinforce a culture of philanthropy, rather than setting a tone of quid pro quo? While donors may have lots of reasons for giving, the more that we can satisfy their need for recognition without escalating expectations for personal benefits in exchange for donations, the better for our sector as well as our organizations.

* Keep within your budget limits — while not compromising the tax deductibility of your donor’s gift. If you’re giving away a lot of stuff, you’re probably reducing the tax deductibility of your donor’s gift. Remember that in the USA, if a donor expects and receives a tangible benefit in exchange for his gift, the tax deductibility of his contribution is reduced by the “fair market value” of the gift received (more about this in future articles on Tax Consequences — in the US, and in Canada).

This article first appeared in Major Gifts Review at

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.