Donor Recognition Programs: Great Ways to Say Thanks

Donor recognition displays have come a long way the past 20 years, evolving from simple walnut wood displays with brass plates attached to multimedia displays and displays with changeable acrylic graphics.

“In the last five years I’ve seen a tremendous push toward digital displays,” says Curt Denevan, sales manager for RCB Donor Recognition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “They are what everybody is talking about, what everybody wants.”

Universities, hospitals and institutional customers, like museums and zoos, are the ones most likely to order a digital donor recognition display, he says. Part of this drive to digital is because organizations want displays that are easily changed out as new donors step up every year. They are looking for ways to engage their customers through newer media, like touch screen computers.

RCB uses high-end professional-grade touch screen displays that work like a tablet or cellphone. Behind the scenes, the company custom writes the software for each customer.

“It is not a cookie cutter package. We sit down with every customer and put this together to meet what their specific needs are. We want whatever it is we design to be authentically them, to represent what they are and what they want,” Denevan says.

Digital donor displays can tell a donor’s story in his own words, he added. It can include video interviews saying why the donor wanted to give to the institution and what the institution means to the donor.

Digital makes the stories come alive and have greater meaning, he says.

Tony Spolar, owner of Spolar Studio LLC in Milwaukee, Wis., says that his company primarily produces fine art on commission that is installed into architectural spaces. The company will produce signs but “we can’t compete with basic signage companies. We do really cool signage, artful signage, hand-crafted,” he says.

With that comes a niche in donor recognition walls.

“People looking for donor walls from us have shopped around and found out there are a lot of boring solutions to a donor wall,” Spolar says. “Our clients usually want something creative and decorative and timeless.”

The biggest challenge when developing a donor wall is coming up with a design that a client can economically update on an annual basis. It is much easier to design a donor wall for a closed campaign because they can be permanently installed, he says.

Spolar Studio implemented a donor wall for Marquette University in downtown Milwaukee about five years ago. The University needed a wall that could be updated on a regular basis but they wanted something unique that would garner a lot of attention.

What they came up with is like a grid from the game Battleship, where donor names are engraved on plaques attached to wood or metal squares with high-powered, reusable magnets on the back. That way, if a new donor comes into the picture, all the organization has to do is shift all of the blocks around to fit in the new person’s name alphabetically, he says.

The company recently finished a donor recognition wall in northern Wisconsin in which the donors complained that their names weren’t big enough, he says. The donor wall overshadowed their accomplishments.

“Ninety percent of people love it. I think the people who wanted their names bigger love it too but they felt they were overshadowed. It outdid them in recognition. We never saw that coming,” he says. Spolar Studio redid the plaques to make sure the donors who gifted the most money stood out from those who gave less.

“There’s a huge psychology that has to be figured out by the client or the recipient of the gift. They have to really understand how they want to recognize these gifts. Is it alphabetical order or by gift size or amount?” Spolar says.

He adds that “when you do a donor wall, the client/recipient of that gift, the institution, has to do quite a bit of work with the person making the wall. There’s a huge amount of communication that has to go on with that.”

Many institutions forget to ask how much it will cost each year to update the donor wall, he says. That has to figure into any discussion.

Denevan is working with a customer in Los Angeles that maintains the donor displays at five hospitals. Each donor wall must be updated annually by replacing and repositioning engraved brass plaques.

The client is looking into replacing the hospitals’ current donor walls with digital ones, something that can be updated remotely using a simple Excel spreadsheet, he says.

Digital donor recognition displays are wall-mounted, similar to how you hang a television in your home. Denevan’s company also designs the hardscape that goes around the display.

“It draws people into the display, explains at a glance what you are looking at and it starts to tell the story,” he says.

The best donor recognition displays are the ones that merge traditional displays with digital ones, he says.

“Every donor wall that comes in here is custom. We could do a system. We thought of doing a system, like taking three of our best systems and streamlining them into something we could offer to anybody without having to do a custom design for each project,” he says, but so far, the company hasn’t done it.

Part of the reason is that he and his designers get very excited when faced with a new and challenging project. Every client offers a whole different feel, a whole different place and whole different opportunities, Spolar says.

“That’s probably the hardest part -- rethinking donor walls and coming up with another solution we’ve never done before. We do reuse similar techniques. Sometimes you feel you run out of ideas,” he adds. But they all share the same components: They have to have names on them, be interchangeable and updateable.

“Storytelling is a big part of what we do here,” he says. Along with donor walls, many clients want history walls that show photos and videos of their past.

Digital isn’t Spolar Studio’s bread and butter. He considers his company to be extremely innovative, but not with electronics. It does a lot with LED lighting and the way it lights the donor walls. 

Another option for a donor recognition display for a closed campaign is printing it on canvas.

“It is the most economical way to do something,” he said. Many traditional sign-making techniques can be used to complete donor recognition displays. They don’t all have to be brass plaques nailed to a piece of wood.