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  • Debra A. Gill

The Writing is on the Wall

Thoughtful donor recognition displays express genuine appreciation.


I'm always inspired by my clients and it’s particularly handy when they inspire a blog topic. As I’ve said previously, while we carry the spirit of gratitude in our hearts year-round, November is the month when we shine a brighter light on our expressions of thankfulness. At the heart of this process, and the center of a solid stewardship strategy, is a well thought out donor wall.

There are a variety of approaches to donor recognition displays. Some organizations have grand showcases, including digital components that have surfaced in recent years. Others have modest but impactful demonstrations of appreciation. There are those with historical plaques and those with dated or outdated walls that no one is quite sure how to evolve. Sadly, many have nothing that highlights support received which is a missed opportunity to show gratitude and inspire others to give.

For decades, I’ve been drawn to donor walls. Like snowflakes, no two are the same. Each have strengths and weaknesses but over the years I’ve observed several effective characteristics.

  • Cumulative: In the spirit of growing a culture of philanthropy, making a concerted effort to include all gifts, from the inception of the organization, if possible, demonstrates the impact charitable donations have had throughout its history. This includes posthumous listings so that heirs can reflect on the legacy of their family members. If public annual giving society recognition is important, create that display as well but having an overall cumulative listing encourages perpetual philanthropy.

  • Modifiable: Gone are the days of fixed alphabetical plaques screwed into panels that require a complete overhaul every time a new gift is received. Donor walls must be responsive and easy to update on a regular basis with a reliable and manageable tracking mechanism that makes it easy to identify when a contributor moves to a higher giving level. Adding or moving names should be relatively simple and withstand the test of time and turnover.

  • Inspirational: Effective donor walls tell a story about the mission. Giving levels that have meaningful names connect supporters to the impact of their gifts. While platinum, gold, silver, and bronze were the go-to options back in the day, we now enjoy the clever application of instruments for musical organizations; renowned authors for libraries; MVP hierarchies for sports programs; mountains for environmental groups; and pets for animal welfare agencies.

  • Appealing: Digital displays are becoming more and more commonplace, largely because they are relatively easy to update. Integrating a visually pleasing digital component with fixed recognition for higher giving levels is an important consideration. A major benefactor or their family members may not wish to wait for their name to pop up on a monitor but rather deserve to be honored in a permanent way.

  • Location, Location, Location: For most organizations, there is a high traffic lobby or entrance in which to locate these essential tributes. For others, especially hospitals, universities, and social service entities with multiple locations, methodologies must have a creative approach. Can the displays be replicated in multiple locations? While digital has its limitations in terms of warmth and creativity, various monitors located around campuses may be the right solution, particularly if they are interactive. Consideration should be given to lighting, visibility, prominence, and accessibility.

  • Permissible: It is recommended to get approval before displaying names. The simplest way to gain that consent is on the gift or pledge agreement that seeks the donor’s preferred phrasing and/or gives the option of having their gift remain anonymous. If nothing else, use this process as an opportunity to call and have a meaningful conversation about their preferences. I once had a donor who increased his gift when a new wall was going up which compelled us to contact those who were within reach of the next level prior to making updates.

  • Accurate and Consistent: Along the same lines as making sure permission is secured, it is essential to validate how contributors wish to be recognized (i.e., first and last name, corporation, etc.) and establish a policy for including or not including in-kind contributions, pledges, planned gifts (a separate legacy society is recommended), event participation, etc. Consistent methods need to be applied so that each contributor is treated equally. Be prepared for the challenge of divorces, marriages, new corporate ownership, and other circumstances that may affect listings and levels. As a wise colleague once told me, recognition is cheap so better to error on the side of inclusivity than be frugal.

  • Sourcing: Whether working with one of the abundant recognition design specialists or engaging local artists or architects for assistance, at the end of the day, the goal is to design a functional but sustainable piece that will stand the test of time.

So, the next time you pass by a donor wall, spend a little time. What works and what doesn’t? How could you apply the concepts to your organization and still maintain originality? What feelings are invoked as you look at the display? Channel your inner Jack Frost (back to the earlier snowflake reference) and create something one of a kind.


Alliance Philanthropy’s philosophy is to inspire staff, volunteers, and board members for all types of not-for-profit organizations to raise funds enthusiastically and passionately - at maximum levels - in support of their missions.

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