Friday, October 30, 2015

Recognition Circles: The Art and the Science, Part Two

This two-part guest blog written by DRG Of Counsel member Debbie Meyers attempts to demystify the recognition circle, in theory and in practice. Partone discusses the rationale behind having recognition circles (the art), including why we should have them and how they should operate. Part two highlights some of the FAQ’s and logistics in setting up a family of circles (the science).
Recognition Society FAQ’s

Recognition societies can cause a lot of confusion – with our donors, with our gift officers, even with donor relations professionals. Here is a partial list of frequently asked questions:
1.     How many are too many?
2.     How do I know what giving level to start at?
3.     How do you know when to end one and start another?
4.     How do you let donors know they aren’t in the new society?
5.     How do we brand them so donors know which ones they’re in and why?

It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands and give up, or at the very least, scratch your head.
My advice? Don’t make things so complicated. 

The earlier blog talked about WHY. Now let’s look at how.

How much staff do you have? How much support do you have from other departments, like marketing, IT and annual giving? That matters. You can’t support five recognition circles with two staff members and no internal support.

Next, who and what. What do you want to accomplish? What behavior do you want to reinforce? Is donor retention a big priority? If so, focus on consecutive giving. Do you need a major gift pipeline? Then focus on leadership annual giving.

Don’t get hung up on a level or threshold. Do the math. How many donors do you have at various levels? Weigh that number against your available resources and budget. If you’re struggling between starting a leadership annual giving circle at $1,000 vs. $2,000 vs. $2,500, look at where the natural bell curve is with a strict tally of donors at each of these levels. If you have a decent-sized staff, and the difference between $1,000 and $2,500 is negligible, then drop down to $1,000. If it’s twice as many donors at $1,000 than it is at $2,500 and you don’t have a lot of help, aim for the higher threshold.

Whenever possible, err on the side of inclusion – include more donors, not fewer – but balance that choice with the limitations of your staff, budget and other resources. Moreover, make sure that whatever program you choose to create, it’s one that you can sustain over time, with staff turnover or any other number of variables that come into play. Be realistic and practical.

And remember, you don’t have to have a circle for every kind of giving behavior you want to encourage and recognize. First-time donors are an excellent example. You don’t need a first-time donor circle. It would be a short-lived circle, since nobody can be in it more than once! And second, you should do something for first-time donors because their first gift is a landmark event and the first step toward consecutive giving. But you can recognize them programmatically. Do something as simple as sending them a cute card or decal. Just make sure you say, hey, we noticed that this is your first gift, and that’s a big deal!

Diamonds may be forever, but recognition circles are not. Yesterday’s major gift may have been $50,000 but today that figure may be more like $100,000. Or you may have lots more donors at that lower level and not enough staff and resources to support them under your current giving circle criteria.

So your giving circle that’s ten years old that recognizes people for cumulative giving of $100,000 may need to go to that big recognition circle in the sky, freeing you up to create a new one. Then how do you tell your $100,000 donors that they are no longer in the ABC Circle? You don’t. You tell them that there’s a new XYZ Circle, and you spell out the eligibility criteria (new minimum level), and you tell them you hope they will choose to participate.

The levels you set for your circles tell donors what your institution considers a major gift or a major leadership gift. Lynne Wester’s formula for cumulative giving circles is that the minimum threshold should be 10 times what your organization considers a major gift. So, for example, if your organization’s major gift threshold is $50,000, then your lifetime recognition circle should start at $500,000.

We tried that at my institution recently, and magically, all the math worked. Our endowed fund minimum is $25,000 and our cumulative giving levels start at $250,000. We moved up from $100,000. Initially I thought $250,000 was an arbitrary number and that $500,000 made more sense. But when the data arrived, we saw that moving the threshold up that high would eliminate three-fourths of the donors who were in the previous cumulative giving society. That was too drastic and with my budget and staff, I felt we could handle more donors. Don’t you love it when things work out?!

Your numbers may not fall into place so easily. In fact, we’re about to move our endowment level up to $50,000 which will wreck the nice symmetry we have. But we always have the option of treating the $500,000 donors programmatically, much like our first-time donors. And the same holds true for $50,000 and $100,000 donors. They don’t fall into our eligibility requirements for recognition in the circle, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do things for them through a program we execute but don’t publicize or brand.

And finally, when branding these circles, have two goals: make them tie into your organization and make them visually related. Carnegie Mellon University and Oklahoma State University have excellent examples of a family of recognition circles that are unique to the organizations – their heritage, landmarks, alma mater lyrics – and visually tie together graphically. Ideally, they also indicate the reason the donor is in the circle. Our planned giving circle is called the Founders Legacy Circle, because these donors are leaving behind an important legacy. Our consecutive giving circle is called the Black and Gold Loyalty Circle, using our alma mater and emphasizing their loyalty in giving year after year.

The most important take-aways are that your circles should have meaning, should work for your organization in providing focus and structure, and should reinforce the behavior you want to see in your donors. If you stay clear on WHAT you’re trying to do, the HOW you do it ultimately should fall into place.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Recognition Circles: The Art and the Science, Part One

This two-part guest blog from DRG Group member Debbie Meyers attempts to demystify the recognition circle, in theory and in practice. Part one discusses the rationale behind having recognition circles (the art), including why we should have them and how they should operate. Part two highlights some of the FAQ’s and logistics in setting up a family of circles (the science).

Why have recognition circles?

A rule of project management is to ask yourself why you’re doing something five times to get the real answer. So why are you creating a recognition circle?

To recognize your donors? To make them feel good about their relationship with your institution?

Well, duh – yeah! That’s two.

To encourage your donors to keep giving each year, and more generously? To prove that all gifts matter?

Closer. Yes. Keep going.

To provide a structure and focus for your development staff, to show them who they need to keep an eye on? YES YES YES.

That’s five. All five YES.

Each answer is valid but it’s only when you get to the last one do you discover a major insight: these circles are really more for us than they are for our donors. They’re a tool in our fundraising tool box. Donors don’t give to get. And they certainly don’t care if they’re in the Platinum level as opposed to the Diamond. I can’t tell you which is more valuable, platinum or diamond, and even if I could, what difference does is make?

(Let me save you four seconds: a quick Google search will give you the good ol’ “it depends” answer.)

No, really. What difference does it make?

Are you offering donors something worth the $4 million it would take for them to get from one level to the next? If you are, you’re jeopardizing their tax deductibility status. And if they have that much money, couldn’t they buy it for themselves anyway?

I’m not talking about the Big Three Things that donors want: access, information and experiences. The IRS doesn’t care about those. I’m talking about the medallions, plates, vases and other commemorative items we give our donors to acknowledge their generosity and welcome them into the fold of our giving circles.

Giving these things is not right or wrong. Just understand that receiving these things is not why our donors give.  And truthfully, it does more for us than it does for them. We get to have our brand displayed in their homes and offices. They have to find a place to put them.

A cautionary tale from our leadership annual giving staff. They are aligned with our leadership annual giving circle, which they (LAG) and we (donor relations) jointly administer. When we were experiencing several challenges and delays with printed pieces, branding and support materials that they felt they needed to go out at meet with donors, the leadership annual giving officers finally came to realize that they are not the circle – they are leadership annual giving. The circle is just something they use. And if the circle were to disappear tomorrow, they would still be doing their jobs exactly the same way they are now: soliciting donors to support the university.

Same with major gifts staff. Our cumulative giving circle has been dormant for several years, because of staff turnover and state budget cuts. But that didn’t stop our gift officers from asking for major gifts, nor did it stop our donors from making major commitments. Life went on.

Am I suggesting we don’t need these circles? Not by a longshot. But if you are going to have circles or societies, make them work for you. Use them a part of your cultivation, solicitation and stewardship cycle, not as an end unto itself.

Don’t have levels just to have levels. It’s confusing to donors, particularly if no meaningful benefits are assigned to the various levels. Use the circles to reward and recognize the behavior you want to reinforce: loyalty, leadership, generosity. And use the circles to highlight for gift officers the donors who mean the most to your institution.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Donor Relations: Where Do I Start?

You've found this website and blog and you may be overwhelmed by the amount of information within. Don't worry, we're here to help. Most donor retention can be traced to one thing, donor relations. There are four pillars of donor relations, as seen in the diagram below, where do you start?

You start with thanking your donors and telling them the impact of their support.
That means you start with the first two pillars, stewardship and acknowledgment of the gift. because you see, it doesn't matter how wonderful your events are, how dynamic your recognition is, and how special you make a donor feel. First you must thank them. Need a resource on how to do that? Well the 2015 Acknowledgment swap is ready for your viewing pleasure! You can find all 4 of them including thousands of letters here:!acknowledgement-swap/c1ve 

I hope you take some of the text and make it your own, copy the content and add your flourish. Tell your story in the letter and make the donor feel the gratitude from within. Also, remember the way a donor gives their gift is directly correlative to their communication preference. So think twice about sending a letter on 81/2 by 11 paper to a donor who gave you $100 online. Are you listening? Send them an email, a video, a postcard, but don't always send them a letter in the mail.

Once you thank them you have to show them the impact of their support. Tangible, real results of their generosity. Donors give to see change, what are the changes in your organization as a result of private support? Have you demonstrated this clearly? Can I trace my donation through your organization and sense the tangible outcome? I should be able to, regardless of the amount of the gift.

I hope this gives you a starting place, a launching pad for your donor relations direction as you venture to retain more of your donors.

As always feel free to comment below.

Update: If you want to dive deeper into the 4 Pillars of Donor Relations, you can order my book and/or join me at the 4 Pillars Conference in Dallas on November 30, 2017!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Stop, Drop, and Roll

A Wonderful guest post from Mary Solomons:
We all know that if we ever find ourselves consumed by fire we must “stop, drop, and roll.”  But what if the fire is in our office? What do we do if we can’t keep up?  My new mantra is Drop, Delegate, and Redesign.


The biggest challenge is saying no.  Donor relations professionals are usually people pleasers.  We’re not programmed to say that we’re not willing to take on additional tasks.  How can you talk to your boss about dropping a program or declining a new responsibility?

·       Have a mission statement.  The mission of the Skidmore College Donor Relations office is to enhance lifelong relationships between donors and the College through meaningful, personalized acknowledgement and recognition of our donors that connects them to the results of their philanthropy.  If you don’t have a mission statement, work with your supervisor and colleagues to craft one.  Then look at your department responsibilities. Do they fall within your mission statement?

·       What are the top five priorities for your department?  Again, work with your colleagues to insure that your priorities mesh with institutional goals.  In a CASE Currents Article from 2013, Karen Osborne, president of the Osborne Group, recommends keeping a log for a week of how much time is devoted to initiatives outside of your five priorities.  If you’re devoting excess time to projects that don’t move forward your priorities, it’s time to talk to your boss.

·       If you do have to take on something new, and of course you will, be clear with your boss regarding how much time think it will take, what else is on your plate, and the ramifications of taking on a new project or responsibility.


I’ll be honest, this is the hardest one for me.  Again, a common characteristic among donor relations professionals is a Type A personality and control issues.  But we don’t always have to be the ones doing the work!  I often use the adage with my co-workers, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Teach them how to find the information on your database, train them in the art of acknowledgement writing!  Do you have junior colleagues who want to learn new skills? 

An athletic fundraising golf tournament was taking up an inordinate amount of time, especially the silent auction.  We successfully turned over the sourcing of auction items and day-of-event oversight to the team coaches who directly benefit from the dollars raised. 


This is my favorite way of preventing forest fires in the office.  It goes along with my abhorrence of the WADITW (we’ve always done it that way).  What can you change about your current workload that will generate time and/or cost savings while also providing better donor engagement?

At Skidmore a redesign of our endowed fund reporting resulted in huge time savings.  Previously we wrote a cover letter and included a separate page with the financial and beneficiary information.  It required careful checking of salutations, collating pages, and to be honest, was pretty dull.  Several years ago we developed an 11x17” printed piece chock-full of information about Skidmore’s endowment.  It included blank spaces for the donor’s full name, the name of the fund, and financial and beneficiary information.  Our amazing Advancement Services team wrote a report in Advance that dumped all this information into a template.  The four-color pre-printed shells are run through the copier.  This dramatically reduced the time to get out the endowed fund reports and we heard great feedback from our donors who loved the colorful impact reports.


And, as Smokey the Bear says, “Only you can prevent a forest fire.”  What have you done to prevent office fires from burning out of control?