A fundraising riddle that’s no joke

Here’s a riddle with a fundraising focus. What do faculty and other staff mock, students ignore as they walk, and development officers forget in their rush for the next big gift?

Answer. The stories of generosity behind the names displayed on the front of campus buildings.

If that’s what you shouted at the computer screen, good for you. And good for the college, university, or theological school with which you are affiliated. If you’re telling and re-telling the stories of the people celebrated in the names scattered around your campus, even better.

At most schools, public recognition of donors’ heart-felt reasons for giving (AKA their stories) lasts about as long as the building dedication.  At least that’s my experience.

Imagine my delight, then, to pick up the latest issue of the Northwestern University alumni magazine. (I’m not even the alum. My husband is.)  The fall 2012 issue includes a gorgeous piece highlighting stories of people/families behind the names on some of the most prominent or dearly loved buildings on that campus.  The article is a prime example of what I preach all the time in my consulting work.


The real opportunity in naming opportunities is the opportunity to tell the stories, over and over, of people who cared about a particular school enough and believed enough in its future, to attach their name or the name of someone whom they loved deeply to one of its buildings (rooms, chairs, etc.). When we fail to repeat their stories to new generations of students, parents, donors, visitors — anyone who has ears to hear — we sell present-day constituents, the folks who did the giving, and the school short.

After all, a named gift is about so much more than the money — as important as the money is. A named gift is a testimony to family values, institutional loyalty, and amazing generosity.

In the case of Christian colleges and universities, gratitude for God’s great goodness and a desire to be faithful stewards of the resources entrusted to them factor into donors’ decisions about giving.  As these stories are shared, named gifts (including those from long ago) are everyday, close-at-hand teaching tools, prompters, and guides for growing generous hearts.

That’s what money-focused boards, under-the-gun fundraisers, and cynical faculty need to remember. When donors give us the use of their names along with their money, they are giving us their stories as well. And in the long run, those stories are the most precious and impacting aspect of their gifts.

That development staff and other organizational leaders don’t make better use of named gift stories, now that really is a riddle.  No joke.


  1. What do faculty and other staff mock — thank you for saying that. In our profession hardly ever is something this frank admitted. Even more so, I should think, among your primary audience of seminaries and the like. But true it is, if, as you suggest, the names are ever even noticed. Your writing is important.

  2. Thank you, James, for giving me an “amen.” As the college where my husband serves as provost prepares to open a spectacular new building for the school of music, I’m bracing myself for a fresh round of snide comments about named spaces. It’s going to take all the grace and generosity of spirit I can muster to accept the comments as opportunities to teach rather than chide.

  3. Lori Guenther Reesor says:

    I agree that the stories of generosity should be celebrated. However, I struggle with the whole naming opportunities concept sometimes. There are no auditoriums named in honour of the widow’s mite because a generous and sacrifical gift from a person of few resources simply isn’t enough to fund a building. How can we also celebrate the generosity of those with fewer resources? Thanks for raising the topic, it’s a good one.

    • Good question, Lori. Interestingly, and to the credit of the folks at Northwestern University, the article to which I refer includes the story of Lufkin Hall, named for the first Dean of the School of Music and funded “by thousands of small gifts collected from alumni and friends over 30 years.” A name on a building doesn’t necessarily mean or require that the person who’s been honored gave the money. That’s the neat thing about telling all the stories. There’s something for almost every hearer, including the proverbial widow with her mite.

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