Donor recognition matters and makes a difference in US fundraising

When I teach fundraising courses, participants often ask me the difference between US fundraising and the fundraising occurring in Australia. It’s an interesting discussion because, in fact, there are more similarities than there are differences. However, I draw distinctions for the audiences by talking about the strengths of regular giving in Australia and the different strength of major gifts in America. On a recent trip to the US, I noted donor recognition matters and makes a difference in US charitable fundraising.

Examples of Recognition

On the evening of 28 December, I visited the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota Florida, which is an arts performance centre on the bay in this beautiful Florida city. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Center hosts performances from around the world, mainly during the US winter when the population of Sarasota grows to over half a million people. During holiday seasons, the population spikes with many families visiting retirees to this winter escape.

On this first visit in December 2018, I was struck by the solid donor recognition, stewardship and donor care occurring and very visible throughout the building. It’s not just the donor walls which recognise the significant contributions of generous supporters since the Van Wezel was built in 1968-1969.

It’s not just the Van Wezel Center which caused my applause for the strong donor recognition occurring in US fundraising. We also visited The Ringling Museum, the Perlman Music Program Suncoast, directed and operated by Itzhak and Toby Perlman, and the Asolo Repertory Theatre. In each of these instances, staff were recognising major donors in person, leaving hand-written notes at their seats, thanking them for their support and assisting them with various concierge needs or benefits. Additionally, donor recognition throughout the theatres or halls was prevalent. This recognition was in program books, on donor walls, and naming rights throughout the facilities. In one case, I spotted a stairway named after a donor.

The Sarasota community is similar to other communities which have a spike in populations during certain times of the year. There is a reliance not just on year-round residents, but also on those who call these communities home during extended holiday periods. Palm Springs, Phoenix, Sarasota, Miami are a few such communities which come to mind. An article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune highlighted the significant capital and endowment campaigns underway in Sarasota at present. The article recognised six such campaigns underway or nearly completed totalling more than $250 million. Sure, we have seen campaigns far larger; however, remember these are arts facilities and remember this is a city of less than half a million people who live there year-round.

In each of these campaigns, donors are being encouraged to step up to support the arts and cultural non-profit organisations of the very community they love and make their own for at least 3-4 months of the year. Many of these supporters also support other non-profit organisations in Sarasota. The Sarasota arts non-profits are not the only organisations to benefit from their amazing generosity. These donors are also supporting arts and other causes near to their hearts in their home cities likely in the northern parts of the country. Needless to say, there is a lot of competition for their charitable support. This means these non-profit organisations must do a superb job of stewarding and taking care of these donors in order for them to remain engaged.

Seated at the Perlman concert last week, I overheard a conversation from a person seated in the audience who has a premium development position in Sarasota. She said hello to a man and woman, recognising their support of there marquis non-profit organisation and she also recognised the support this couple has given of the Perlman Music Program. This development person did not just make it about herself and her organisation. She knows, if done right, there is enough money to go around and she also knows a rising tide lifts all boats. American non-profit organisations and fundraisers  do stewardship and donor recognition in a smart, efficient, and effective way.