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[ASK AN EXPERT] How To Recognize Tribute Gifts When The Donor Wishes To Remain Anonymous

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on how to recognize tribute gifts when donors want to remain anonymous:  

Dear Charity Clairity,

We list tribute gifts in our annual report. This year we received tributes from donors who wish to remain anonymous. Should we still list the tribute (the honoree) and just list the donor as anonymous or should the entire gift remain anonymous.

— Worried about doing the wrong thing

Dear Worried,

It’s important to be careful to follow donor wishes, so kudos to you for being thoughtful about how you’ll recognize a gift when the donor asks to remain anonymous.

The best way to know what your donor wants, of course, is to directly ask them.

If you have a phone number, pick it up and give them a call!

It’s a good opportunity to connect, and you may even catch them in a chatty mood. First find out the details you need. Then, if you do catch them in a receptive mood, let them know you’d love to learn more about what motivated their giving. Begin by getting their permission to continue: “Do you have a moment to chat?” Now you have a chance to ask some open-ended questions that will help you get to know them better.
If they don’t answer the phone, try texting them with your inquiry.

Ask for all the information you need, and let them know what you’ll do (as default) if you don’t hear back. This adds a bit of urgency, and may encourage more people to respond. Plus, it lets you off the hook if you “do the wrong thing.” When going the default route, message the donor 2-3 times to maximize the chances they’ll read and heed.

If you don’t have a phone number, but do have an email, ask your question that way.

If you must guess, think about this from the donor’s perspective.

They are making the gift “in tribute” so it’s likely they’ll want the honoree recognized and notified. It would make little sense to offer a tribute otherwise. It’s meant to show gratitude, admiration and respect – all things it can’t show unless the honoree is informed.

Now think about this from the honoree’s perspective. 

Someone who cares about them just made a gift in their honor. If they don’t know this, they can’t say thank you. Nor can they enjoy the warm feelings that come from being thought about in this warm and loving way. Can you really pay tribute to them without listing their name and notifying them of the gift?

Next steps

Once you’re inside both the giver and the honoree’s heads, it’s clear what steps to take – even if you weren’t able to connect with the donor.

  • Give the honoree their due and list their name.
  • Honor the donor’s wish for anonymity and don’t list their name.
  • Notify the honoree a gift was made in their honor. Unless the donor specifically tells you to keep their name private, let the honoree know who made the gift.
  • Send a thank you to the donor, confirming you will keep their name anonymous in any donor recognition listings.

There’s one other thing to consider: Ditching your list entirely.

Some organizations have determined donor listings are a poor use of their resources. They’ve ditched the list for a myriad of reasons, including to:

  • Save paper when printing hard copy annual reports, newsletters, and programs.
  • Avoid the embarrassment of listing someone incorrectly (e.g., name misspelled; in the wrong giving level, perhaps because multiple gifts weren’t tallied; revealed name of donor who asked for anonymity; inadvertently omitted “soft credit” gifts such as donor-advised funds, corporate matching gifts, workplace gifts; name otherwise slipped through the cracks due to inaccurate data entry, imprecise report generation, or errors made by the designer or printer).
  • Cut down on the achingly time-consuming process of developing and editing these lists to assure they are accurate. It’s almost impossible to guard against inaccuracies, and while this work is going on other opportunities are being missed.
  • Adhere to a principle of equity, where all gifts of all sizes are equally valued.

As you consider how to recognize your donors, also consider recognizing the value (or lack thereof) of printed donor lists.

Remember: The best donor recognition is always a prompt, personal and powerful thank you; then repeated gratitude offered throughout the year.

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Worried” did.)

How quickly do you recognize anonymous tribute donors? Please let us know in the comments below.

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