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Recognition Societies: Are they Salvageable?

If you google “giving society” and look at the image results, you are inundated with thousands of recognition society logos, catchy taglines, formal seals, lofty descriptors, and endless fussy fonts. As Donor Relations professionals, we understand the thousands of staff hours that go into the development, branding, execution, and long-term management of these giving societies…but yet are constantly grappling with the question, “are they effective?”.

Giving societies are the ultimate comfort blanket. They are familiar, we can execute them, they make sense on paper, and we can turn to them when we need to justify stewardship or engagement on a broad scale. However, as our organizations become more adept at answering our donor’s increasing needs for personalized engagement and impact communications, we must retool our recognition programs to accomplish the same goals.

Of the donor relations professionals who participated in the 2017 Pulse of Donor Relations survey, only 45% of respondents felt that recognition societies and clubs are effective forms of donor relations – a decrease from 55% in just four years. If this is the case, if we are as an industry on the precipice of moving away from these programs entirely, it begs the questions, can they be salvaged and repositioned as strategic fundraising tools and what is our role in that process?

I would argue, yes, there is hope. Yes, they can be strategic. And, yes, donor relations needs to be at the heart of that issue and driving the change. Here are the caveats, though:

  • Experiences vs. Benefits: you must build your infrastructure with the goal of creating meaningful experiences for donors, not inducting them into a club. (Bonus tip: make your annual event or experiences family-friendly so that you can engage younger donors with small children, or those who would bring grandchildren, and make it FUN!)

  • Simplicity: Streamline your recognition levels to a minimal number to ease the burden of execution and to be clear and distinct to your donors. Limit yourself to no more than 3-4 levels. Focus on the most important groups of donors that need attention and concentrate your efforts on these strategies. Having no more than 2-3 “societies” will help ensure the quality of the experience you can provide.

  • Donor Behavior vs. Giving Amount: Design your recognition programs based on donor behaviors that need reinforcement for your organization – first time donors, estate donors, consecutive donors. Having a lifetime giving society is just fine, there is nothing wrong with that, but balancing that with donor behaviors ensures you keep a comprehensive view of your donor base and do not become too focused on the top end of the pyramid.

  • Accessibility: Not everything has to be branded, put on the website, and made into brochures. Donors don’t pay attention to these items and they tend to suck up our communications, data, and web resources. Look for ways to naturally integrate the recognition into existing communications, invitation lists, and special events. Avoid non-recognizable society names, busy design, and fluffy language – focus these resources into conveying impact in straightforward and simple manners or create engagement. (Remember, not all recognition has to be a “society”, it can simply be a program that your team executes behind the scenes.)

This is just the tip of the recognition society iceberg – there’s much more to explore on this topic. In the meantime, share with our readers and us what challenges you face with recognition societies and where you plan to take yours in the future!

This post was written by DRG Group member, Sarah Sims. Sarah is a consultant, speaker, and the Executive Director of Donor Relations at the University of Florida. 

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