Named gifts, posthumous reputations, and judgment day

hello_my_name_is_tag_front_11682(1)I didn’t expect to bump into fundraising in the pages of Michael Kinsley’s touching, funny book, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide. But there it was, capping off his chapter-long riff on the Boomer Generation’s quest for immortality. Kinsley latches on to a favorite of the non-profit world – the named gift (a modern-day “indulgence,” in his words) – to illustrate his point.

The best way to gain a healthy posthumous reputation is to get rich and then buy one. In ancient cultures you built a memorial to the gods, which was actually a memorial to yourself. In modern America you achieve the same thing by seizing on what is called a ‘naming opportunity.’

A naming opportunity is the chance to get a building named after you at some charitable institution such as a hospital or theater or university. It will come with some lapidary indication that you paid for it. It’s all quite clinical. For X dollars you can get the entire building, though X is usually somewhat less than the entire cost and is usually negotiable. For some smaller fraction of X you can get a wing or a ‘pavilion’ (as hospitals call them for some reason) or a classroom or an operating theater or a seat in an auditorium. Some cultural institutions implant floor tiles with contributors’ names on them. Congratulations. You have achieved immortality. . . At the very least you can get your name on a long list on a plaque on the wall. I say ‘the very least’ but that’s not quite correct. At the very least you get no recognition beyond a computer-generated thank-you letter from the vice president for development. See how far that gets you on judgment day.

Kinsley’s less than flattering detailing of a favorite of fundraisers brought me up short, long-time champion that I am of named gift opportunities. Not of course as quid pro quo exchanges of money and self-glorification as he suggests – oh no, never me. In my work with ministry organizations, I describe named gifts as a wonderful way by which donors can make public their belief in the mission, goals, and God’s good work through the cause to which they give. Behind every named gift is a story (or stories) of faith-filled generosity and hearts that are rich toward God.

To be sure, there are times when named gifts devolve into the crass exchange that Kinsley describes, but in my experience those are the exception, not the rule. In fact, within ministry organizations, it’s not unusual that donors must be coaxed toward the naming option. For the most part, generous folks of faith are more intent on bringing glory to God than in bolstering their posthumous reputations.

NAME CALLING, OR NOT

All that to say, I remain comfortable in encouraging faith-based organizations to consider naming opportunities – although with a bit less fervor than before reading Kinsley’s sad description of the practice. So, please, don’t simply take my word about the rightness of including named gift opportunities in your fundraising toolbox. Instead, ask and answer the following questions for yourself before moving ahead (or continuing) with named gifts.

Do the theological and faith commitments of your organization support the use of a named gift strategy?  As Thom Jeavons and I wrote in Growing Givers’ Hearts: Treating Fundraising as Ministry, “Everything done by a fundraising team should conform to organizational convictions about who God is, how God is involved with individuals and communities, and how that involvement shapes individual’s attitudes about giving and receiving.” In other words, we need to do more than merely wrap faith language around fundraising techniques. If there’s the hint of a cringe-factor, you likely shouldn’t go there.

What do friends of the organization “hear” when you talk about naming opportunities?  It’s not enough that staff believe a practice is okay. Too often, rationalization knows no upper limit and especially when driven by group think. Organizational leaders intent on growing givers’ hearts check in regularly with friends of the ministry, eager for insight into how fundraising methods and messages are received and perceived. Staff within ministry-centered programs work hard at choosing words that elicit faith-encouraging giving, but even then, it’s possible to miss the mark. However, unless you ask about what’s been heard, you won’t know.

Are you committed to telling (and re-telling) the stories behind named gifts?  When donors send   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. As you share donors’ stories, named gifts (including those from long ago) are every day, close-at-hand teaching tools, prompters, and guides for growing generous hearts. If keeping the stories alive buys benefactors a bit of glory, well, so be it, but that’s not the goal.

There’s not one, always the same answer to whether a fundraising strategy or technique – including named gifts — is right for your organization. However, as you grapple with the sorts of questions suggested here, you’re more likely to get closer to right than to wrong, at least most of the time. And that, dear reader, should serve you and the friends of your ministry well on judgment day.

For more about fundraising as ministry, see:

The very reason for fundraising as ministry

A ministry response to nonprofit fundraising

Before rushing head-long into fundraising, consider this

Comments

  1. Great article, Rebekah. Relevant thoughts for anyone doing fundraising and considering naming opportunities to consider. Thanks for doing this blog!

    • Thank you, Dan, for your affirming word. I recognize that because I’ve been privileged to know the stories behind a number of named gifts, I could be biased on this one — and so the questions for organizational leaders (including board members) to ask for themselves.

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