You’ve likely put a donor list together or seen an organization publish their donors. Some of the most popular places to see a donor list is in an annual report, newsletter, website, and donor appreciation event. There is a long-standing conversation about the effectiveness and ethics of publishing these lists. To be clear, the lists I am referring to are typically annual fund donors who have chosen not to remain anonymous. For development directors, this is a common source of confusion and many have trouble navigating this complex topic. Let’s take a few minutes to review three reasons why some question the practice of listing donors.
  • The most common reason is having their name published is not something a vast majority of donors care about. Penelope Burk is a leader in the fundraising space and has provided valuable data over many years. One of her donor-centered studies reported 88% of individual donors responded they would continue to give whether or not their name is published. This is what was reported. Many say the number is higher in reality siting studies that analyzed giving within organizations who chose to stop listing donors publicly.
  • Effective fund development sees and treats all donors as people valuing all gifts to an organization. Another reason some question publishing donor lists is because it prioritizes the gift amount over the donor since many are organized by gift amount.
  • Protecting donor’s privacy. A donor list is no longer limited to who attends the event or who is on the mailing list. Information gathering is more sophisticated than ever. When an organization publishes its donors online, it shares that information with the world. Donors may choose not to be anonymous not knowing the full extent of how others can find their information and what can be done with it.
To be fair, here are a few common responses:
  • Many who will say they don’t care about listing because it’s the right thing to say. In reality, they actually do care.
  • Listing by gift amount is does not diminish appreciation for all gifts. It’s strategic. It allows the organization to cultivate relationships with those who account for a substantial percentage of annual giving.
  • The list allows donors to see who else has similar philanthropic interests and build stronger bonds within the donor base.
It does not have to be one or the other: Penelope Burk is right that most donors, especially individuals, do not place a lot of importance on being published. A common mistake is that the list becomes the main vehicle for donor stewardship and appreciation. Therefore, fundraisers spend too much time and energy on something most of their donors do not care about. Donor publications should be a small tool in your stewardship toolbox. Real donor relationships are built with personalized communications and interactions throughout the year. Many organizations place such a large emphasis on the list because they aren’t effectively and continuously building personal relationships with donors. It’s also worth stating I do agree organizations need to protect donor’s privacy by making sure donors are aware how and where their name will be listed. As always, please reach out if you need fundraising guidance or help with your major gift campaigns. All the best, Kenny Sigler, CFRE