Thursday, August 11, 2011

Giving Societies

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to speak at the Southeastern Donor Relations Conference sponsored by ADRP. There was a wonderful donor panel populated by some generous philanthropists who also were great characters. We really enjoyed listening to them tell about their relationships with giving, etc. At one point an attendee stood up and asked the panel how they felt about giving societies and which ones they belonged to. The grande dame of the panel grabbed the mic and said soundly, "Well, I am a proud member of the International Floral Designers and the Elite Floral Designers of America." Everyone in the room zoomed around, and glances were caught, while most of us were thinking that her "miss" of this development question brought home an important point, most donors don't know that they belong to a giving club or society that we have created, manufactured and branded for them.

We spend countless hours discussing giving societies on listservs and at conferences and yet I have never heard a donor say that they increase their giving or give so they can be a member of a giving society. My friend Paige went to great lengths to redefine her giving societies at Carnegie Mellon and has had much success with them. She simplified them and made sure that for everyone she created, she had meaningful benefits that met the donors needs. How many of you can name all of your giving societies and why they are each important and what benefits are received? I didn't think so. I think giving societies are often over hyped and under staffed, with many levels and confusion about what exactly it means. So the question then is how do you do them well? Here are some of my tips:

1. Don't create one if you don't have a clearly defined purpose or goal and know that this vehicle will work for your donors. What's wrong with just stewarding them well without giving it a fancy name and logo?

2. Keep it simple. I have three societies, two of which are currently working well and one which I am developing. A million dollar plus cumulative giving society, a planned giving society, and coming next a consecutive giving society similar to the Carolina Circle I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

3. If you delve into societies make sure you have the time and resources to do so. Under promise and over deliver, the reverse can be tragic. Nothing is worse than a splashy launch and not having a good product to back it up- anyone remember Pepsi Clear?

4. Be very careful about your benefits and quid pro quo IRS laws, CASE standards, etc. Make sure you get your list reviewed by legal so you're not digging yourself a ditch.

5. This related back to a practice I always employ, survey your donors first and find out what is important to them, does a society matter to them? What are their needs?

6. Make sure that you make the number of people in each society manageable, ensuring that if they are to get something hand signed by your president or CEO, that it indeed is possible, exclusivity doesn't mean thousands of people getting the same thing.

7. For the love of all that is good in the world, stay away from items/tchotckes, one caveat, I have seen lapel pins and nametag identifiers used well. Items cause tax problems, logistical and shipping issues and donors don't give to get. What is most meaningful to them is personalized notes, insider access, and clear communication.

I hope these guidelines help you and I look forward to an open dialogue about what is working for you and what isn't. I welcome your comments and questions.




  1. Lynne,
    Excellent points. I was at the SE Donor Relations conference and remember the response from the donor panel all too well. I believe simple is best, but how do you work in/work around colleges and alumni associations that have their own societies as well?

    Mar Helen

  2. Good article Lynne. I cringe when I see giving clubs that have matrices for benefits...what a thing to manage! Plus I worry about when one of the benefits can't be done (budget cuts, staff cuts, etc.). Thankfully we don't have anything posted as to a 'benefit' and I keep hoping they will decide to simplify our six societies -- too many!

  3. I hate that I have been too busy to blog on this topic myself lately because I always have a ton to say about it. In a nutshell giving societies don't work unless they have teeth. You accomplish this by creating donor recognition programs in their stead. How does one do this? I call it the "pitch" and the "catch." When a baseball player comes up to bat he isn't just working against a pitcher... there is a guy squatting behind him strategizing with that pitcher. You see signals, fingers, looks... Same is true with donor recognition programs. You HAVE to partner with your development staff or else you are just out on the dance floor doing the tango alone. The best programs motivate donors with a goal of drawing them in and strategically handing them off. Your development staff pitch... you have to be ready to receive.