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Recognition Societies : Build, Revamp, or Retire?

A hand drawn clock that says "Time to Retire" with a teal overlay and the blog title: Recognition Societies: Build, Revamp, or Retire?

Have formal donor recognition societies already had their day in the sun? Should we be eliminating or investing in them? That is the big question, and my answer may annoy some of you, but the answer is—it depends

It depends on the maturity of your organization. It depends on your staffing. It depends on your budget. It depends on the number of donors and how they give. It depends on your donors and their expectations. It depends on what exists now and if it is working. What I'm trying to say is, unfortunately there is no single answer for determining whether a recognition society is right for your organization. Instead, there are many considerations that must be factored in when making this decision.

Let me give you a real life example from my current organization, UC Davis. We had existing programs to recognize planned giving donors—we actually had three—one central program, one for our health system donors, and another for our Veterinary School donors. They were all limping along. We also had a leadership annual giving recognition society but no one person managed it. We were nearing the end of our first-ever comprehensive campaign and had thousands of major donors that we knew would need to be engaged, recognized, and cultivated for future giving. Our donor relations team was small, but we had plans to grow it to keep pace with this new influx of major donors. We also knew we had to produce a plan to systematically manage all of these donor groups, and for us, the best decision was to revamp our existing recognition societies and create a brand new one for major donors.

We took all factors into account and made a decision that was best for our organization. You can, too, by following a few simple steps:

Step 1 – Do Your Research

Take the time to look at all your donor data and find out as much as you can about your donors. Who are they? What are their giving levels? How do they prefer to give? How many give and are they consistent? Do they give cash or is it deferred? Also look at what is in place currently—do you have existing programs to recognize donors? If so, take a hard look at what is and isn’t working. For most organizations, a recognition society goes defunct because no one is managing it. Do you (or will you) have staffing to support a recognition program, or two, or three? All of this research will give you the intel you need to determine whether a recognition society is right for your organization.


Step 2 – Talk with Your Donors

Now it’s time to talk with your donors about these recognition societies. Do they like being a member? If so, why? If no, why not? Do they even know they are a member of your society? I like to survey donors to find answers to some of these questions. I also like to do focus groups, and even schedule individual meetings with key donors to get more information. I want to know what motivates them to give to my organization and what we can do to make them feel valued for their giving. I also want to know if being a member of this society is helping engage these donors. Asking our donors these questions can be a scary proposition for us and our leaders, but knowing what our donors want, need, and expect will help us make better decisions in the future.

Step 3 – Share this Information with Your Development Partners

Once you have gathered all your information, both about your donors and your program, and you have heard from your donors what it is that they want, then it is time to share what you have learned. Too often, our development leadership and gift officers make a lot of assumptions about what they believe their donors will or will not need. You now have the data to show them what it could be, and how it will impact the overall recognition and engagement of your donors. CAUTION —do not miss this step—it is important that all players understand and buy-in to whatever decision the organization makes.


Step 4 – Build a Structure

OK, you now have all the information you need and your leadership and partners are on board. Now it’s time to build out a structure based on said information and your organization’s goals. Is the goal to inspire new giving? Is the goal to increase the pipeline of annual donors? Is the goal to grow donor loyalty? Is the goal to encourage more major gifts? While at a previous institution, I learned that many of our lifetime giving donors stopped giving once they made it into our recognition society. I proposed raising the level of membership and giving every member a chance to give a gift to continue membership. For those that did not want to give more, we grandfathered them in, but limited the benefits they would receive. My leadership thought I was nuts and said no one would give more just to stay a member, but I knew (from my research!) that the most coveted benefit was an invite to an extremely popular annual event. Guess what happened? Donors gave more (millions more)—and did so happily. 

Step 5 – Check Back in with your Donors

After you build the structure or make the revisions to your existing program, show it to your donors. Let them see how it will change and ask them for feedback on what they do and do not like. Ask them if being a member of this recognition society would make them feel valued and appreciated. NOTE—this step can create some angst because if you ask donors what they think then you must be prepared to listen and make the changes they suggest. When I built our new leadership giving society at UC Davis, I involved my Foundation trustees in every step and let them help me build out the structure. So, when it came time to launch this new program, they were my champions.

Step 6 – Staff Up

You need systems, processes, and a budget in place to build a recognition society, but someone has to ensure that the program is managed. If you are going to invest energy in revamping or building something, you must have the staffing in place to execute it. This may include restructuring a position to make time for a current staff member to manage the program. Or it may require hiring additional staff. Either way this step is critical to the long-term success of your recognition society. Do not skip it.

Step 7 – Roll Out

You now have the structure, systems, and staff in place to manage this recognition society. Now it is time to roll out the program to your donors. You’ll need a formal plan to share it widely—with your donors, with your development partners, and with your organization. Send a series of communications to your donors to let them know they are now a member of this society. Update your website. Share it on social media. Feature members in newsletters, at events, and in other donor communications. Everything you send to your donors should be branded—for example, “as a member of the leadership giving society, we want you to be the first to know…” 


A recognition society is a systematic practice of showing appreciation to donors for supporting your organization. Thus, the activities, communications, and access you give them as a member of the society can help you honor donors for their giving, or for a particular behavior that your organization would like to perpetuate. When executed properly these programs should help you achieve the greater goals of your development operation. Where are you and your organization in this recognition society evaluation process? Have you already had success with revamping? Please share with us in the comments, and know that DRG is available and able to assist with any part of the process.

Want to learn more about revamping your recognition societies? Join us April 23 for Transforming Recognition Societies: Industry Best Practices for Revamping and Maximizing Impact.


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