Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Honor Rolls of Donors are the Most Wasteful Donor Relations Practice Possible

There are many things I believe we do in donor relations that make absolutely no sense. Top of my list is the honor roll of donors. I hope you read this post and share it with as many others in the nonprofit world as humanly possible.

In all my time in donor relations, I have never heard of a donor who gave an organization a million dollar gift because their name was in a textual list of donors. Yet I must get asked at least once a week what I think of honor rolls and their place in donor recognition and stewardship.
I think they have no useful purpose, they provide opportunities to make costly mistakes, they are a huge waste of human resources, time, money, and they are otherwise foolish.

Why Honor Rolls Don't Provide Any Benefit

Time and time again, we have asked donors what they want and how they want to be recognized, and the three things that appear most often in their answers are:
  • Access
  • Information
  • Experiences
Donors want handwritten notes from students. They want to meet those that benefit from their philanthropy. They don’t care about your honor roll, only you do. Just because you have always done them does not make honor rolls a great idea.

"A list, a list of names, does not tell a story. If an image is worth a thousand words, a donor honor roll is silence."

Why Honor Rolls Actually Hurt Donor Relations

In major cities, honor rolls are passed around from research office to research office, basically telling your competitors where the money is.
Talk about a privacy violation!

"From the donors' perspective, you might as well put a blinking neon sign above each of their heads that says 'I give money away!'"

What You Should Do Instead

If we took the time and effort that goes into producing monstrously ineffective honor rolls, and pooled those resources instead into a piece on the impact of a gift, the story behind the gift, and the story behind the donor, then we would be much more effective in recognizing the people behind the gift. Those people and their stories are what truly makes philanthropy possible.

I have yet to hear a person who works at an organization that produces an honor roll say, “It's so easy, I just push a button and voila!” or “I've never heard a complaint.”

So I ask you in the clearest, most relevant way I can to stop it.

Stop doing them.

Eliminate all honor rolls, all the time.

I’ve helped to eliminate honor rolls at many institutions. Every single time, we have saved money, staff time, and other countless hours of grief. Every time, the honor rolls went away without a complaint. In their place, we have been able to build robust and meaningful donor relations programs, with tangible ROI and with storytelling that is meaningful to donors.

I'd love to discuss this with you, and I’m open to a civilized debate. Please email me at lynne@donorrelationsguru.com for more information about discontinuing honor rolls and replacing them with more meaningful forms of donor recognition.

I originally wrote this post for my friends at Academic Impressions. You can view it here.


  1. Amen! At one institution I worked at, a major donor was not included in an honor roll because he had not given during the fiscal year and, though we had done nothing "wrong," he asked us to send a letter signed by our VP to his classmates informing them that he had been left out of the honor roll by accident. It was one of the more interesting letters I ever had to write.

  2. however, does it encourage friends of donors to give or at least inquire about the organization?

    1. I think the mission and message of the organization is a better reason that the honor roll.

  3. Thank you I agree. But seems like I am always having to make one for somebody! Then they print all the names so small people can't even read their name!

    1. Lori,
      good point. If you can't read your name you don't feel so special!

  4. There's one good reason to do an honor roll: your best donors have asked you to. That doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it trumps all the bad reasons.

    In a related vein, just because you might make a mistake doesn't mean you shouldn't do something.

    1. Well there's a reason. Everyone has a boss- but I try to propose alternatives first!

    2. ROI is every reason not too!

  5. Yes, Lynne! Its often inertia or ego that propels these traditional tomes -- along with a misguided belief that publishing a list is a mechanism for getting future gifts (through guilt of those not giving or peer-association of wanting to give and join the group).

    But inertia is the biggest hurdle. Even when I was the VP, I faced the fear of change from front-line staff and some board members, whose arguments always relied on outlier-anecdotes. Finally, a cost-analysis (a bit more than a full-year, FTE staff person) and promise of an 18-month communication plan to tout the benefits of change put the honor roll into retirement.

    For what it's worth, Lynne, you and others are working hard to bring donor relations into the day-to-day core of a best-practice advancement operation. Honor rolls are a relic of the days when donor relations was an afterthought and represented the entirety of institutional-based stewardship.

  6. I don't believe you can generalize to the effectiveness of impact, positive or negative of any one program if you don't know the circumstances and culture of a particular institution. In your experience perhaps that is the case. I do know that as a former NCAA Division I athlete when I see how our sport is doing versus other sports, or what other alumni from my sport are doing I am interested. Additionally, in our environment we have run multiple challenges that were competitive in nature, whether with another school or among classes, and the aspect of donor roles play a component of the ask process for agents. We are an all boys boarding school and this is likely to make ours a unique environment. However I would say in many cases this applies to athletes as well within any environment. Something that may be applicable to a small liberal arts college that doesn't track grades may not apply to Harvard or FSU. I reference those two only because one is recognized in educational leadership and the other readily recognized as the winner of this year's NCAA National football championship.
    By the way we do a multitude of the things you mention, impact of gift pieces, where does the money go, signed handwritten letters from students, ...it is a multi-level approach designed to allow for ALL the various potential motivations of donors. Donor roles are not an emotional cue, they are a competitive one. We strive to address both of these in our efforts. Ours is a society that appreciates both. We cry watching the freakin' Bachelor and we want to want to be recognized at our jobs for the work we do well. You have to have both.

  7. I believe these types of recognition programs are good for smaller organizations who have a limited amount of resources available to provide recognition to donors. As an organization matures and develops a year-round cultivation plan the 'honor role' can go the way of the dinosaur, but until there is some other mechanism to recognize donors it is an old-school, tried and true tool.

  8. Great points, Lynne. You have found ROI for your market - thanks for encouraging us to find ours. The USA is a diverse place!

  9. We do a draft of our honor roll and give people the opportunity to move up, fix their name etc. We send it out with a donor slip and we make LOTS of money from this. Many people want to move up into another category, people like to see who is giving and we even send an email before we do the draft telling them the date the draft will close. We get so many responses and phone calls to give that I would be surprised if we ever stop doing the draft of the honor roll and the honor roll. We also get so many calls from people saying they didn't see their names ( almost always their name is in a different category than they thought, rarely do we miss anyone). So for us it is a money making opportunity.

    1. salliea, what kind of an organization do you work for?

  10. I don't think of the donor listing as being for the donors as much as it's for their friends and others who see it. In the arts world, donors are listed in the program books and are seen by many audience members. Having a long lust and having well known community members on it makes a very important impression on them. I believe the lists are useful!

  11. I has been helpful to have lists for internal purposes to help us educate fellow staff members and volunteer leaders about who we consider VIP folks. That is of course complimentary to the other initiatives we have in place to thank our donors and provide updates on how their dollars were put to use. Yes we list our donors on pull-up displays during our annual meetings, in issues of our magazine, in eNewsletters and on the website. We have also carved out a "Leadership Challenge" which takes their leader groups and benchmarks them against their own previous calendar year % of participation and total dollars raised, while also comparing to the other leader groups. http://www.healthlawyers.org/leadershipchallenge is our webpage for this particular challenge.

    How do I prioritize, well it has been a couple of months since I've updated the list on the website, but each donor has been sent a thank you note within a week (goal of 72hrs) of when they made their donation.