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Still Publishing Donor Names? Ditch the List

Posted: 7/15/2021

Click here to read on Blue Avocado.

by Patricia Ayres Crawford

"We nonprofits often put a great deal of time and effort into our annual reports, especially compared with how briefly most recipients will look at them," begins the Blue Avocado article, The Secret to a High Impact Annual Report. "Rather than slave and anguish over the parts almost no one will read anyway," the author continues, "try a new approach."

Hurray! Where once faced the rigidity of a wall when it came to annual reports, now we're shown a secret door we can walk through toward high impact.

Commenters praised the piece for revealing the possibilities of a modernized annual report. And coaxed us to explore them. I imagine fundraisers and communications staff exclaiming, "We can produce something vibrant and engaging! We can use any format! We can distribute by more than one channel!"

But the article ignored one stale annual report practice: The donor list. Before another annual report season is upon us, let's fling that secret door wide open by addressing this today.

My experience with annual report donor lists, or honor rolls, is personal. As a donor, I have been disheartened when I was missing from them. As a staffer, I have struggled compiling them. I have withered from rebuke over errors in them. I also have succeeded in eliminating them. And, once freed from the practice, I have raised more funds without them.

Three experts in donor relations shaped my view. Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising and other books based on her primary donor research; Lynne Wester, the Donor Relations Guru and author of The Four Pillars of Donor Relations; and Kivi Leroux Miller, founder and CEO of Nonprofit Marketing Guide, the go-to for nonprofit marketing communications professionals.

I've combined their wisdom with my experiences to craft six reasons to ditch your donor list. If you're still producing a list—in print, online, or both—I invite you to consider halting the practice based on any one these reasons:

Reason #1: Your donors won't donate again, or more, because of your list.

Penelope Burk was the first to question the usefulness of publishing donor names 20 years ago. She reported 71% of individual donors and 83% of corporate donors said this type of recognition "had no impact on their decisions to give again or give more generously." This sentiment has only grown over time. In Burk's study six years ago, 88% of individual donors—17% more—said they would have made a gift at the same level whether their names were published or not.

Hold on, I can read your mind. You've done the subtraction and are asking yourself: "Does that mean lower or no gifts from 12% of individual donors?" No. 88% of donors told Penelope publishing their names wasn't influential. What percentage actually weren't influenced? You'll have to wait until Reason #6 for the answer.

Reason #2: Someone won't become a donor because of your list.

Sure, a list of individuals, corporations, and foundations demonstrates your organization is receiving support. And you've heard a big list of supporters can motivate giving because of the "social proof" principle. But these days that argument is weak. Really, how many prospective donors read your honor roll, in 8-point font, in the first place? Zero. How many prospective donors, glancing at the long list, wonder, "Wow, this matters to me. I'll give because I know why these people donated and I'm inspired"? Zero. How many prospective donors recognize an influential person on your list and exclaim, "I'll give because I want to be like that person"? Zero.

Reason #3: Your donors haven't given you explicit permission to recognize them, and how.

Did you ask every donor for permission to publish their name—in print and online? Since most print publications are also uploaded to the organization's website, your donors' names and gift levels are not only public but searchable. This is significant because donor privacy is paramount. But let's assume you did. There's more: Did you ask how they would like to be recognized? Sue may prefer Susan. Andrew may prefer to be anonymous. Rick and Ellen may wish their family foundation appears along with their names. Lynn may wish you also recognize her partner—whose existence you were unaware of because Lynn gave by credit card.

Reason #4: Mistakes are inevitable and costly.

Let's break this down. First, mistakes are inevitable because they can emerge from many sources. Just consider these questions:

  • Is your database 100% accurate? For example, were soft credits, corporate matching gifts, workplace giving, stock gifts, anonymous gifts, entered correctly?
  • Is the way you generated your list from your database accurate? For example, were donors wishing to remain anonymous flagged, were monthly recurring gifts for the year totaled, were donors who also volunteered highlighted?
  • Are you making any manual edits because it makes good sense? For example, did you remember to recognize your former board member who mailed his annual gift a month after your fiscal year end—because his son died in a tragic accident?
  • When you asked your donors to add a tribute, did you give the impression you'd publish it when it's not your practice?
  • Did your designer accidentally drop a few lines or misspell names?
  • Did your printer misunderstand your designer and omit 75 donors?

Not only are mistakes inevitable, they are costly because donors can—and do—stop giving when their trust and confidence in a nonprofit is shaken. They also voice their frustration with others. And your staff who agonized over the donor lists for weeks? They feel frustrated, too, in addition to embarrassed and defeated.

Reason #5: You're spending thousands creating and publishing this list.

Publishing donor lists chews up resources: staff time plus design, printing, and mailing costs. Once I estimated three staff—including me—spent an average of three hours a day over 10 days on lists for an annual report. The cost: $5,000 in staff time. When I added the opportunity cost—other projects that could have delivered more value if we had focused on them instead—to the costs for design, the back and forth with the printer proofs, the extra pages, the extra postage, the total expense exceeded $10,000. I soon presented this discussion question to my boss and board development committee: "We're spending $10,000 each year and gaining what exactly?" We never produced another comprehensive donor list again.

Reason #6: Your donors won't notice if you quietly stop publishing your list.

If you choose to forgo publishing a list of donors, the recommendation is to not announce it ahead of time. Just stop doing it. One of Penelope Burk's studies backs this up. Among a group of organizations that stopped publishing lists, she found no donors—0%—gave less or didn't give as a result. In fact, she writes, "No donors even inquired about where the lists had gone." So, 88% told her they wouldn't change their financial support if their name wasn't published. And 100% didn't change their financial support when their name wasn't published.

Your path to a high-impact annual report is no longer a secret. Just as Blue Avocado suggested more than 12 years ago, try a new approach. And if you try just one new approach this year, may it be to ditch the list.

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