In today’s market where public-private partnerships, crowdfunding, and charitable donations are a big part of project funding, finding a way to bring donors’ gifts to life within buildings and other physical places is increasingly important. Brass plates on bulletin boards and the ubiquitous donor tree are things of the past, as many organizations want to say thank you in more meaningful ways and make the donor proud of their association with the organization. Designers play an important role in bringing this relationship to life.
Like most design projects, it’s important to start with research, but for donor recognition programs that research might follow a slightly different track. Designers must work to understand the organization and its mission or purpose, as well as its history. After all, these are the attributes that have drawn donors to the organization in the first place–they feel a strong emotional connection–so the mission, purpose, and history deserve to be highlighted in the donor recognition program.
The fact that people and relationships are at the core of the project and its donor program must also be emphasized–even if the gift is a corporate donation. There is deeper meaning behind it that needs to be uncovered in the design process and illustrated in the resulting design. Listing donor names is a nice way to say thank you, but by going deeper to demonstrate what’s behind the name, that ‘thank you’ turns into a more emotional expression of the gratitude felt by both the donor and the recipient, and of the relationship between them.
Adding this kind of depth to a donor recognition program also makes it more interesting and engaging for the visitor who might have walked right past a more typical donor wall, but is drawn into one that feels like art. The passerby is more likely to pause and reflect on the names and the stories behind them. What drew these donors to this organization? What connection did they feel? What inspired them to give so generously? How can I too be part of this organization? Design has the power to tell that story, even subtly, and inspire new connections.
While charitable giving has been a popular form of philanthropy for generations, Millennials and their younger “Gen Z” counterparts are known for their social awareness and desire to work with (and only with) organizations whose mission or purpose they feel a connection to. They’ll actively shun those that go against their personal beliefs. This not only impacts the type of employer they seek, but also where they choose to shop, dine, travel, or simply hang out with friends. Donor recognition programs have the power to give today’s youth something to connect with, even if they’re not ready to become donors themselves. They’ll see tangible evidence of the relationships between the individuals and companies whose names and logos they recognize, and the organizations that they admire and want to support. This can pave the way for future relationships, financial support or activism, all of which can be motivated or inspired by thoughtful design elements.
Digital displays are increasingly incorporated into designs to add layers of information and insight into donor programs through the use of more dynamic media; they often connect with mobile devices to tell even richer, more personal stories. This can be especially meaningful with legacy gifts, where a donor has bestowed a gift in their estate planning. The donor’s story can be told in parallel to the organization’s, with a variety of media illustrating the intersections between them.
Other forms of signage must also be considered in a donor recognition program, such as directional or wayfinding signage that directs visitors to spaces that are named after specific donors or sponsors. The hierarchy of design is important to keep in mind, as signage must always remain simple and straightforward to help a visitor navigate a space effectively. Even though pointing the way to a specific place is the sign’s number one priority, respecting the person or company who made that space possible is equally important and a thoughtful design can accomplish both.
Finally, though philanthropy professionals and the organizations they support will always have to balance the need to continue recruiting donors with the need to bring a project to completion, donor programs are rarely finite. Relationships will continue to expand and new partners will bring new gifts to the table for years to come; thus the organization’s relationship with the designer is often one that’s long-lasting as well. This timeline is important to keep in mind.
In the early days, the designer can help a philanthropy professional with marketing collateral that helps them recruit donors by illustrating, even in conceptual drawings, the way the donor’s gift will eventually be reflected in physical spaces. Later, once a donor exhibit is installed, blank panels or other similar placeholder elements can be incorporated into the design to allow for future donors’ names to be added later. And when it’s time to add those names, the designer can be brought back in to manage each addition; or the organization can self-manage future installations by following the designers’ original plans and instructions with the direct technical support of the fabricator.
Many places and spaces wouldn’t exist without the donors who supported them–and continue to support them–through financial donations as well as volunteer participation. These are the relationships that deserve a spotlight in the form of a thoughtfully designed installation that shows genuine gratitude for what’s already been given, and that inspires others to follow that lead.