New Perspectives on Building Inclusive Naming and Recognition Practices

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Donor recognition and naming is an acknowledgment of a donor’s contribution meant to celebrate the generosity of the gift and offer the donor the benefit of legacy and public distinction.  Recently, the topic has experienced increased relevance within the philanthropic sector, particularly due to several exceptional gifts at high-profile institutions at a time when our society is grappling with power dynamics and wealth inequality. 

In the past year, numerous organizations have received transformational gifts of unprecedented size. These gifts will certainly have a profound impact and create significant opportunities for institutions to further their missions. The significance and impact of these gifts inspire the question: how should these gifts be recognized? Many organizations may choose to recognize the donors of these transformational gifts by renaming their buildings or significant spaces. These gifts bring up fundamental questions surrounding the practice of naming and gift recognition that are worthy of consideration.  

The development or renewal of a donor recognition and naming program can offer a space within which these questions can be considered and thoughtfully addressed. Below we address some of the traditions and evolution of naming recognition and steps your organization can take to intentionally refine your approach. 

The Traditions of Naming and Recognition 

A donor recognition and naming program defines who is recognized and celebrated, at what levels, and through what means. The purpose of these programs is to honor the generosity of an organization’s supporters and ignite enthusiasm and motivation for giving.  

Traditionally, naming is known as a strategy for upgrading donors who wish to reach a new level of support that offers attractive benefits. It’s also useful for an organization to demonstrate and communicate its values, establish the tone of a campaign, and engage key stakeholders and community members.  

To serve its intended function, the policy or program should be clear, fair, and consistent. The components of a naming and recognition policy are typically: 

  • Specified duration of public display of name and a renewal process once that time limit has been reached 
  • A morals and values clause that clearly articulates the organization’s values and ensures the individual and/or organization being recognized is in alignment with these values 
  • Defined exceptions process if and/or when a situation outside these bounds arises: How are exceptional opportunities addressed?  

The Evolution of Naming and Recognition  

Naming and recognition policies have come under review as a whole and are evolving. For example, many organizations are moving away from naming spaces “in perpetuity,” as this level of permanence restricts other individuals from participating and limits future options. This practice also reinforces the idea that spaces can be “bought” and indirectly infers ownership of a public space. Similarly, as our communities address the impacts of generational wealth, it is becoming less common for naming and recognition policies to include options for families to automatically renew named spaces.  

Moving toward a more community-centric approach, this evolution has witnessed several recent trends: 

  • Recognizing a donor’s cumulative gifts or duration of giving instead of the gift level or individual gift amount 
  • Acknowledging non-financial contributions  
  • Recognition being designed by the community 
  • Naming selection rights where a donor may select a name from a list created by the organization (Example: a donor chooses the name of an artist to honor) 
  • Preserving community spaces as “community owned” by not allowing them to be named 
  • Creating stricter values and morality clauses 

Reflecting on Your Organization’s Naming and Recognition Practices 

As the landscape of donor recognition policies and standard practices is experiencing a significant shift toward inclusivity and community-based approaches, we recommend asking these key questions to illuminate a path forward for your organization: 

  • How can we ensure a sense of community connection and belonging alongside naming? 
  • What do we want naming and donor recognition to communicate to the community? 
  • Who will be recognized beyond donors? 
  • What scale of contribution warrants a rebrand or renaming of a physical space? 
  • What message is delivered when an institution renames an important feature after a donor?  
  • What types of recognition will be most meaningful and motivating to donors? 

These questions provide an important opportunity for reflection and evaluation of your organization’s naming and recognition practices, hopefully offering a refreshed perspective and facilitating a generative discussion of organizational values among key staff and stakeholders. 

Beyond internal evaluation and ideation, your organization might choose to do the following: 

  • Hold discussions with community stakeholders about naming and recognition, including development committees, campaign committees, leadership, non-development staff and volunteers 
  • Conduct an audit of current naming and recognition within the organization and the corresponding gift agreements 
  • Connect with building committees and community stakeholders to review options that align with architectural design and public interest. 

Ultimately, the future of your organization’s naming and recognition policies and practices depend on establishing a clear understanding of community needs and interests. By incorporating these voices, your organization can ensure that it is recognizing generosity in a manner that is true to its values.

For more information about our services, please give us a call at 877-957-0000 to launch the Campbell & Company team within your organization. 

Aaron Conitz and Sarah Marino

Aaron Conitz is an Associate Consultant and Sarah Marino is a Vice President at Campbell & Company. Aaron and Sarah work with organizations to cultivate their culture of philanthropy and strengthen their fundraising strategies.

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