Capital Campaigns and Naming Opportunities: Our Take
Walk by your local hospital or museum or concert hall, and you’ll see them—the names of wealthy people in large letters displayed in prominent places both inside and outside of these important public buildings.
With issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion very much on my mind these days, the names of wealthy people displayed in very public ways on spaces meant for the broader community have begun to trouble me more than ever before. You’ve perhaps encountered this discussion of donor- vs. community-centric fundraising in recent years.
In the context of high-stakes capital campaign fundraising, we’ve historically simply accepted traditional naming practices because it’s what’s always been done. But many, myself included, are no longer able to bury underlying concerns about the appropriateness of traditional naming opportunities and major donor recognition strategies.
Taking risks with new approaches informed by DEI can help guide the way for other nonprofits—here’s an example.
A Story from the Field
Just as my discomfort with traditional naming opportunities was coming to the surface, one of my clients was planning a campaign to raise $10,000,000 to build a new building. This client is committed to serving communities of color, and when I described the traditional practices of naming spaces for wealthy donors, they balked.
“Let me discuss this with our board,” the executive director said. “I’m not sure that sort of donor recognition fits with our mission.”
They discussed the practice at their campaign steering committee meeting. They brought the question to their board. And I had some conversations with some philanthropist friends to see what they thought would happen if the organization didn’t offer naming opportunities.
Most of the philanthropists I spoke with told me something like this: “I don’t care about naming opportunities, but other philanthropists do. And if your client abandons that practice, they might lose some large gifts. Your client is taking a huge risk.”
I thought it curious that most of the people I spoke with said that they, personally, didn’t care about naming opportunities. In fact, they’d rather NOT have their names on buildings, but they all thought that other people wanted that recognition.
While I was conducting my own mini-research, my client was having extended, serious conversations about it with their board. At the end of their discussions, they determined that naming spaces in their new building was inappropriate for an organization with their mission and that they would take the chance of not offering naming opportunities as a way to recognize their largest donors.
We rewrote the campaign policies to say that all donors would be recognized in some fashion in the main lobby space of the new building. We didn’t mention specific naming opportunities at all, and we didn’t specify how the general plaque in the main lobby would be organized, leaving open the opportunity to list names alphabetically rather than by gift level.
The board and the steering committee knew the risks but approved the plan. And so, without offering naming opportunities, my client’s campaign proceeded to the quiet phase during which they solicited their largest gifts.
And now, two years later, the results are in. My client has raised well over their initial goal of $10,000,000. They have solicited all of their largest donors, and not one of those donors complained that they wouldn’t get their name on the rooms and spaces in that building!
Some donors asked to see the list of naming opportunities. But when they were told that the organization had decided not to use that practice because it seemed inappropriate for their mission, they understood, and their giving was unaffected.
Is the practice of naming buildings, rooms, and spaces a thing of the past?
For my client, naming opportunities were not appropriate, and their donors didn’t seem to mind that they wouldn’t have their names on rooms in the new building. But this approach may not be right for many organizations that are more tradition-bound and that have a history of naming spaces.
However, I do think that every organization would benefit from a thoughtful conversation about naming practices and whether or not they are appropriate for their organization.
I have started raising the subject of how best to recognize large campaign donors with all of my clients and with the campaign experts at the Capital Campaign Toolkit. These conversations have opened people’s thinking to new ways.
For example, an organization we work with is considering recognizing their corporate donors by commissioning art by a local artist to install in the public spaces of their new building, and then presenting their sponsors with replicas of the art that they can install in their corporate offices to trumpet their practice of doing good in the community.
Another organization is considering having their top donors select heroes from their community to recognize on the walls of the building with small plaques indicating the donor who selected the hero.
The idea is that rather than highlighting their own names and money, donors can (and are often eager to) highlight creativity and community good.
Donors understand that your nonprofit’s advocacy needs to be reflected in more than just what you say and the campaigns you launch—it needs to be reflected in what you do, as well.
Again, for many organizations, the traditional naming practices are too deeply embedded to ditch any time soon. But I believe that having lively conversations about alternative ways of recognizing donors is a good idea for every organization.
About the author:
Andrea Kihlstedt, Campaign Expert & Co-Founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit
Andrea Kihlstedt is a Co-Founder of the Capital Campaign Toolkit. She is the author of Capital Campaigns: Strategies that Work, now in its 4th edition, as well as How to Raise $1 Million (or More) in 10 Bite Sized Steps, in addition to other books.
Andrea has been leading successful capital campaigns for more than 30 years. To learn how the Capital Campaign Toolkit can support you through a capital campaign, visit capitalcampaigntoolkit.com.