You’re FIRED!

I’m not sure who I enjoy more when it comes to terminating employees or contestants — Vince McMahon (owner of WWE) or Donald Trump (of Celebrity Apprentice fame). Personally, I couldn’t stop laughing throughout the Donald’s YouTube video as he fired Star Wars characters. You really should click that link. ROTFLMAO!!!

So, what does this have anything to do with non-profits, fundraising and donors? For the first time in my life, I heard a donor say: “Someone needs to be fired over this.” Ever since that conversation, I haven’t been able to get The Donald out of my head.

The “back story” to this conversation is really simple. In fact, you won’t believe it at first.

I was catching up with an old friend, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and our conversation turned to my efforts to open a non-profit consulting practice. Shortly after updating them on where I was with legal paperwork, marketing and business development, they wished me luck and said “non-profits need a lot of help”.

Well, I couldn’t let that comment go by the wayside. So, I asked what they meant. After a sigh, they shared a story about how one of the non-profit organizations (to which they loyally contribute) screwed up the “donor honor roll and giving levels” in their annual report. Without getting into specifics, let’s just say it was somthing like: their name was misspelled, they were listed in the wrong giving level, they didn’t want to be publicly recognized, etc.

As I referenced earlier, this donor wasn’t just annoyed . . . they were angry enough to say: “Someone needs to be fired over this.” After stewing on this conversation for a good long while, I’ve decided that there must be some good lessons to be learned from this situation. So, I did a little research and decided to share those findings with you today because as I always say “we can learn from each other”.

As I tend to always do, I turned to the person I consider my fundraising guru — Penelope Burk — who conducts annual donor surveys on this subject and published the book “Donor-Centered Fundraising“. I encourage everyone to buy a copy of that book and internalize it. Here is what Penelope reports in her book on pages 125-126:

  • 93% of non-profit agencies recognize their donors using various vehicles such as a newsletter, annual report, etc.  Of these organizations, 65% list their donors by gift level and 22% list them alphabetically.
  • When Penelope asked those non-profits why they do this, 49% said they think it helps attract other donors, 47% said they believe it creates donor loyalty, 19% said stated it helps showcase philanthropy and the newsworthiness of charitable giving, and 17% believe it encourages gifts of higher value.
  • Upon further investigation, the research shows that there are a number of potential pitfalls associated with recognizing donors in this fashion including: 1) accidentally omitting someone’s name, 2) misspellings, 3) accidentally reporting someone’s name when they contributed anonymously, and 4) accounting for multiple gifts throughout the year and putting a donor in the wrong giving level. This doesn’t even address the problems associated with cost, staff time, etc.
  • Here is the kicker . . . 71% of individuals and 83% of corporate donors told Penelope that the donor honor roll had no influence on the size of their gift. Even more to the point, 90% indicated in the survey that they want to be asked first before a non-profit agency publicly recognizes them.

I am a huge advocate for donor recognition and stewardship. If you want to create donor loyalty, your organization needs to invest in newsletters, handwritten notes, websites, impact reports, donor recognition societies, annual reports, stewardship events and receptions, etc. However, these things cannot be after-thoughts because that is when mistakes get made and donors get angry.

Think of it this way, don’t you think a $25,000 gift (or any size contribution for that matter) entitles you to having your name spelled correctly or being placed in the right giving range? More importantly than just recognition, shouldn’t non-profits be accountable to their donors and demonstrate a return on investment back to their investors?

I must admit that I used to be a big fan of donor honor rolls, but I’m re-thinking my position after seeing how passionate my friend was over that mistake. I guess this is where I am at after a few cups of coffee and a little research:

  1. Figure out a way to ask donors for their permission before publishing their names in anything. It could be as simple as a check box on the pledge form and a line asking them how they’d like their name to appear.
  2. I’m almost inclined to stop listing people by giving levels and just publish their names alphabetically. Stephen Colbert scrolls the names of donors to his SuperPac along the bottom of the television screen without any indication of contribution level, and this seems to work just fine.

I keep coming back to conversations I’ve had with donors who say: “recognition isn’t important to me”.  I now think that my favorite childhood cartoon characters — Tom & Jerry — might have taught me a very important lesson with regards to donors who say this. Click here to see a YouTube video to refresh your memory!

So, if you never forget these two things:  1) You’re FIRED and 2) “Don’t You Believe It”, then you should always be fine when it comes to donor recognition and stewardship.

What are your thoughts about donor honor rolls? Do you still list people by giving level? If so, why and how do you prevent mistakes from happening? Do you ask donors permission before publishing their names? How do you go about doing this? Please use the comment box below to weigh-in because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


  1. Well- we messed up our honor roll this year for the first time in a long time- hoping your post isn’t based on us. Sigh. It is something that I still think about because I know how dear every donor is to the mission. When you mess up it sucks- all you can do is try to make a quick recovery and hope for the best. Sometimes you can never fix it or it takes years to do so.

    1. Ugh … I forgot about that.

      Didn’t you send out a few emails to donors with corrections and apologies? As I recall, I was on that email blast list because I was a donor. Did you get any feedback from other donors? Are you planning to do anything differently at the end of this year to make sure whatever mistakes were made are not repeated?

      I think it is so refreshing when someone publicly talks about a mistake they made. We can all learn from each other, but that means we all need to come to the table ready to have honet discussions. Bravo to you, Rose. You are a great professional.

      As for whether or not the agency and donor I referenced in today’s blog is you, I have a strict policy of not breaking confidentiality unless all parties are OK with their names being shared. I’m not trying to be coy, but I don’t think it matters because the example describes most of us. We’ve all had a snafu with a donor honor roll.

  2. I have not liked honor rolls because of there being too much room for error. I don’t plan for errors, but there is a big potential for errors to happen. One tactic that I thought was edgy was given to me by a board member. Her son’s private school puts out a draft of their honor roll a month before it’s published and asks everybody to proofread and provide feedback if their name is spelled wrong. What this did for a number of parents was it helped them see what level other donors were at and they upped their donation. It was great for that population of donors, I’m not sold on if that would work in small-town Wisconsin though.

    I’m struggling now with the idea of recognition and how to do that because one size certainly does not fit all. I’m more in the stewardship camp with you Eric. Besides… every time I see an honor roll I just take names off of it to add to my ask list. LMAO Which is why I don’t like publishing mine. There… now you see my selfish side!

    We just had a conversation about widening our donor base and ugh… recognition came up. I really don’t buy in to the idea that recognition is the REASON people give. Perhaps for businesses I guess, through marketing budgets, but I can’t wrap my head around recognition leading person giving.

    Hope all is well with you and yours!

    1. Thanks for jumping in, Sarah. I was hoping Rose wouldn’t be the only brave soul today who weighed in.

      I am intrigued by your board member’s private school’s donor honor roll strategy. My only question is what happens when the donor fails to proofread and then realizes the mistake in the annual report. Will the school tell them that it was their fault for not following directions? Will they give him/her a big fat ‘F’ on their donor report card? I suspect NOT. We’re in the customer service business, and I’d guess an apology would be issued and someone staffer would be thrown under the bus.

      As always, we’re on the same page with stewardship activities weighing more heavily than overdoing recognition.

      I vote for alphabetizing the names as long as procedures are in place to secure everyone’s permission to publish their names.

      Hey … it was great to hear from you. Don’t be a stranger!

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