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Is It Time to Sunset Your Recognition Societies?

(It’s so hard to say goodbye)

Recognition societies have been long-time staples in our work in donor relations. But are they still relevant?

Acknowledging and recognizing donors for what they generously give to our organizations is essential to our work. Formal, public recognition is often expected for major or transformational gifts. Recognizing all donor behavior—loyal, consecutive-year donors or donors with deferred gifts, for example—is also necessary. But does any of this still require structured recognition societies?

The answer is probably “no” or “maybe, for certain groups,” but in reality, it’s tough for us to say goodbye to these types of programs.

Here are a few questions you need to ask yourself – and your donors:

  • Do your donors know what societies they are in and at what level (if you have levels)? Chances are, most of them don’t know or would only know if given a multiple-choice question.

  • If you are still having events, what percentage of the membership attends? Or what percentage takes the time to send their regrets when they can’t attend?

  • AND what are you accomplishing at these events? Does the donor walk away feeling appreciated and more connected to your organization?

The biggest question is, does society membership actually move the needle when it comes to fundraising? Recognition societies are (obviously!) meant to recognize donors for their giving, BUT the point is to keep the donor engaged and actively supporting your organization.

Take away your very top donors, and you’ll likely find that society membership does not necessarily translate into continued giving.

In my own experience, I found the answers to these questions surprising – yet validating – to help sunset a particular recognition program. For one of two cumulative giving societies, the threshold for membership was too low, given how the organization had advanced, and membership numbers swelled. Recording keeping, staff time, and event planning costs far exceeded any return on such an investment. Thus, it was time to pivot!

So…what should you do instead? Refocus staff time and budget toward more custom experiences for your donors. Invite donors to attend or experience other special programs and connect them with the people and things they are supporting. Customize your communications to focus on the impact of giving. These activities are far more likely to keep donors engaged than some lapel pin, membership certificate, or honor roll listing.

Connect your planned giving donors now with the areas their deferred gifts will support in the future. Recognize donor loyalty and thank these donors by keeping them informed of your progress and showing them how they make a difference. And if you don’t know where to start, ASK your donors what they’d like to experience or learn more about…you’ll be glad you did!

Does your organization still have traditional recognition societies? Have you successfully said goodbye to those that are no longer working? If so, what are you doing instead? Let us know in the comments!


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