What’s in a Name? Three Things Arts & Culture Nonprofits Should Know About Naming Rights

The desire many donors have for their generosity to be remembered in some tangible way has been a part of philanthropy for a long time. In fact, the first evidence we have of physical donor recognition goes back some 5,000 years; anthropologists believe that the benefactor of an ancient Sumerian temple is represented on—wait for it—a plaque on the temple wall.*

Naming opportunities are a time-honored way for organizations to leverage significant gifts during capital campaigns. And historically, those rights have been granted in perpetuity. But complications have begun to arise, now that these one-time gifts’ legacies are outlasting the useful lives of the buildings themselves. In other words, when it’s time to renovate or replace an aging facility, organizations find themselves having to fund a campaign without being able to offer donors that time-tested plaque on the wall.

Perhaps the most publicized example of this quandary happened around Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you’ll recall, Avery Fisher donated $10 million in 1973 for the building and was granted naming rights in perpetuity. His family “threatened legal action if the concert hall was rebuilt or renovated under a new name.” Twelve years and many mediated discussions later, the Fisher family finally allowed Lincoln Center to rename the space, but the price was hefty: $15 million, prominent recognition of Mr. Fisher in the new lobby, and a family member seat on the Lincoln Center Hall of Fame’s advisory board, among other inducements. To prevent more situations like this, nonprofits—especially in the arts and culture space where venues are king—are changing the way they offer and execute naming rights for their theaters, performing arts centers, museums, stages, concert halls, and more.

Three Things Arts and Culture Nonprofits Should Know About Naming Rights

  1. Be transparent. Above all, create transparent pledge forms and gift agreements that clearly delineate gift parameters, duration, and procedures for resolving differences. Depending on the size of your organization, consider forming a Gift Stewardship Committee within your Board of Directors to vet extraordinary circumstances (e.g., what if the donor’s name becomes “tainted” by a public scandal?).
  2. Intent is key. The Avery Fisher case was settled because, when the family dug deep into the intent of that original $10 million gift, they realized that what Avery Fisher truly wanted was not his name on a wall for all time, but to create and preserve a venue for future generations that showcased the classical music that he loved. In this case, a written statement of his intent could have saved everyone 12 years of headache.
  3. Be creative. There are many other ways to incorporate naming rights besides the “forever plaque!” A substantial gift could create an endowed fund that covers 100% of the ongoing maintenance and renovation needs of the space. Naming can be time-limited, and the original donor can be given “first dibs” on renewing. You can establish a named fund for all kinds of things: commission new works, a lecture series, scholarships, touring subsidies. Find out what your donors’ interests are and align your naming opportunities with those interests.

As with any significant gift, naming rights require diligent communication between your development officers, Board of Directors, and donors. The more open, detailed, and honest these discussions are, the more likely your naming opportunities will benefit all parties for many years to come.

For more on this topic, watch our recent webinar, Your Name Here: The Complex Practice of “Naming” within the Arts and Culture Sector, featuring Aggie Sweeney, President & CEO of Collins Group, a division of Campbell & Company, and Directors of Development at Seattle Opera and Ravinia Festival.

Sources and Further Reading

*Private Motive and Perpetual Conditions in Charitable Naming Gifts: When Good Names Go BadJohn K. Eason (2005)

Avery Fisher Hall Forever, Heirs SayRobin Pogrebin at The New York Times (2002)

Lincoln Center to Rename Avery Fisher HallRobin Pogrebin at The New York Times (2014)