Can We Do That? Some Thoughts on NonProfit Giving Societies

Giving Societies or named Giving Levels are not uncommon. Hospitals and higher ed institutions have the Founder or President’s Circle. Museums and Zoos offer membership levels. My clients, that tend to be small to medium size social service and arts agencies, ask “Can we do that?”

My immediate response is, “Sure you can!” Followed quickly by, “But are you sure you want to?”

While I believe Giving Societies can be a great tool to encourage donors' continue giving, I also believe that no specific tool fits every nonprofit organization. So, I offer some thoughts for those wondering if they should launch a Gift Society Campaign.

1. Will you recognize annual or lifetime giving levels?

Many organizations provide annual giving levels with clever names and possible perks. Another avenue is to create lifetime giving levels that allow those who may not be able to give a large amount annually, but who are consistent supporters, to be recognized and feel appreciated for their continual support for the mission. Someone who gives $25 per month consistently to an organization for five or ten years might be overlooked if the Giving Society only focuses on the higher end annual gifts.

Lifetime giving levels can be effective, particularly when planning activities for organizational anniversary years. Donors who have not yet reached the ‘next’ level could be encouraged to make a ‘stretch’ gift in the anniversary year to meet the milestone of the next lifetime giving level. Many donors who make such contributions begin to give at the higher level stretch gift in the years following the anniversary.

If your Annual Fund relies heavily on current constituents (like elementary or high school families), then creating annual giving circles/levels could be beneficial – but lifetime giving levels might not present any value added, given many families stop giving once their children graduate or complete a program.

2. Do your donors tend to compete or collaborate?

Recognizing higher level donors in a different manner than lower level donors – while encouraging higher level gifts from community members who have the capacity to give, could breed resentment from others that do not – particularly if your donor base is also the community being served. For example, a school or church community where a diverse population is served could run the risk of causing divisiveness or leaving some members feeling alienated.

On the other hand, if your donor base relies heavily on alumni families or previous program participants, it is worth considering establishing Giving Circles based on graduation year or affinity groups. For example, if the Class of 2017 (or Basketball Parents or actors in a given production) cumulatively donates at a specific level ($5000 or $1000), the group can be recognized at that particular giving level ($5000 All Stars, $1000 Fan Club).

Establishing participatory groups that encourage members to give together so that the organization or affinity group is recognized at a higher level can boost donations from those who might not otherwise give. Folks like to belong and to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Isn’t this ultimately the concept behind Peer2Peer and Fundraising Teams?

3.  Do you have the capacity to cultivate segmented giving levels?

The benefit of creating annual giving circles/levels would depend on the anticipated range of possible gifts. If you can identify constituents with the capacity to give at, at least, four different levels ($5000, $1000, $500, $100) AND you can provide appropriate recognition and cultivation methods for each of the levels – giving levels could encourage higher level gifts.

Before you launch, be sure your organization has the capacity to fulfill the promised perks. For example, while lower level donors might be recognized in the annual report, higher level donors might also be thanked at an annual breakfast or with another perk valued by the constituency. Do you have the capacity to follow through without intense labor or financial expense? If you promise a t-shirt, can you manage the logistical nightmare of sending these out if your campaign happens to be widely successful?

Also, in deciding how to steward and cultivate donors at each level, it is important to remember that, ‘the larger the gift, the more special the thanks’ practice might sometimes conflict with the core values of the organization. Would a faith-based or faith-driven organization do well to remember the widow’s mite?

4.  What’s in a name?

Some organizations and programs lend themselves to catchy, clever names for their giving levels. For example, an orchestra with maestro, musician, composer. Some organizations use the names of well-known founders, educators, or program directors to honor those individuals deeply involved in the mission. While the default Platinum, Gold, Bronze, Silver or Friend, Ambassador, Partner work – if you can easily articulate mission-related names for each giving level, even better.

Regardless of the names you choose, the levels you designate, or if you will recognize annual or lifetime gifts - remember that no tool or gimmick can replace the tough, but rewarding, work of donor cultivation and stewardship.