“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.
Patricia Ayres Crawford is National Director of Philanthropy for Compass. Headquartered in Washington, DC, Compass enriches communities by helping nonprofits solve their biggest strategic challenges. They accomplish this by arranging pro bono consulting projects led by top business professionals. Patricia has fundraised for missions she is passionate about for more than 20 years. During her strategy and marketing career at Wells Fargo, Fidelity Investments, and King Arthur Baking Company, she served nonprofits as a board member or leadership volunteer. Patricia earned a BA with honors from Stanford University and MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
Jim Archer says
I am not giving anymore as I have been deluged with requests from charities etc. to which I have never given. The worst are those which send “gifts” to instill a sense of guilt in the potential donor. I have had it. I am retired on a very small pension and cannot afford to give to everyone. Since I do not know which NGOs etc publish or sell donor lists, I am not giving to anyone.
J. Mason says
I agree that publishing the list can lead to more trouble than it is worth, but keeping an accurate list of donors, which includes correct spelling, is of utmost importance. Each and every donor should be thanked in a personal way. A handwritten note from a board member or the CEO or a phone call is always appreciated.
Mary Holmes says
Publishing names is a bad strategy and we stopped doing it in 1997. There is no logic to serving up your donor list to every other fundraising organization and those internet data mining systems.
“Just say no!” to the list…
That said, from time to time and with permission, we will quote a donor giving a testimony about their giving or gift. People love that!
Patrick de Freitas says
As an “older donor”, who is therefore apparently supposed to be conservative (whatever that means), I read this with interest. Seeing my name listed is not something I really like. Yes, I do want to be thanked but there are many, many better ways. Like a phone call. A five minute call and we’re both done. I know that you got the gift and you can check me off your list. Minimal expense.
Some commenters here claim that I really do want to see my name listed in lights but pretend otherwise. (You know, ‘coz I’m old and vain and conservative and live in a smaller city.) Do you really have that little faith in your donors? What else do you say behind our backs?
Janna Bailey says
My former employer stopped listing donors in its newsletter a few years ago. I thought it was a horrible idea, as our donors skewed older and conservative. However, as the development assistant who processed the gifts and checked the donor list for each newsletter, I noticed no change in the number or amount of gifts. Long story short, I agree with this post.
What is the current wisdom about donor walls?
Elaine Berkopec says
I like many of the points in the article. We do publish names, but we don’t list them by amounts, just alphabetically. We also list lifetime donors separately; they are the ones who have donated over time above a certain amount. We don’t list them by amount either, just alphabetically.
Leslie Tinkham says
If there is a list in an Annual Report received by a donor I believe the first thing an individual will look for within the report is their own name. I do this, too. However, if there were no list I wouldn’t miss it and I believe most others would not (although I do agree that demographics – rural, etc – may come into play in some instances).
Kay Sprinkel Grace says
I think this varies by community, too: donors in smaller communities do look to those lists to see who else is giving. It also varies by type of organization. In the arts, this continues to be very important. It also varies by age and commitment of donors: traditional donors seem to expect this, particularly when it indicates how many years they have been giving; and “one off” donors, I suspect, don’t really care. I agree that this is not a key factor in keeping donors engaged — recognition is a small part of authentic stewardship. My clients vary geographically and their missions are vastly different. So, too, is their commitment to donor listings.
Jim Chappell says
I don’t know. I guess I am of the old school that says “90% of people say they don’t care about recognition, and 90% of them are lying.”
Agree. No one wants to admit they want recognition, because it might look bad. But most everyone likes to be acknowledged, and lots of them like seeing their name in some kind of public roll.
Marc Chaton says
I think in a smaller community, donor lists are more influential. Potential donors can see people they know and respect who have donated and will be more likely to donate knowing a friend or community influencer has donated already.
It is also a Thank You to those who have donated. We also send thank you notecards to donors when they donate. We don’t publish amounts donated so a $25 donor has same status as a $25,000 donor.
This obviously would only be feasible with a smaller NFP in a smaller community, but there are lots of us around.
David M. Patt says
Publishing a list of contributors is more a public thank you than anything else. And the longer the list the less likely anybody will read it.
Many people will view the foundation and corporate contributors – those often imply the financial viability of the organization – but they won’t read the list of individuals. And listing people by the level of giving is elitist. It simply tells everybody who is wealthy. And many of those people don’t want others digging through your list for fund-raising leads.
If you do continue publishing a list, do it in a way that is useful to people. Don’t treat it as an obligatory thank you.
Kim Kruckel says
This article poses a novel idea. I feel compelled to respond, though, building true partnerships with donors, and including them in our successes, may include recognizing them in annual reports.
The time and care we spend putting together stories, features and photos for the annual report pays a tribute to all our supporters, staff, board and the people who share our passion and mission. I don’t believe donors give because they see their name in print, but because they are part of our organization, mission and success and honored as such in our only yearly print document.
I love reading the lists of donors — it’s like reading a town newspaper from the old days.
Our database is 100% accurate (though the people sometimes make mistakes 🙂 and we are meticulous about keeping it up. I would never be concerned that someone might not donate because of who is on the list (who wants ’em?).
Thanks for this thought provoking idea, but for us, it would signify a move away from sincere and honest partnerships, transparency and inclusiveness.
I do look at donor lists, particularly for orgs with which I am not familiar, for the same reason I review candidate endorsements before voting! The language used by non-profits can appear blandly benign, but a donor list can provide some insight. More generally, I think we need more transparency, not less.
Stephanie Casenza says
I have mixed feelings about publishing these lists; however, you need to know your donors. Those of a certain age or generation look for THEIR name and notice who gives at what level, even if it does not consciously influence their giving decision. Some funders may trawl your website and look at who gives to you. Studies on giving among the much sought after Millennial generation suggest they are influenced by their peers, so a list may be beneficial.
This comment – knowing who your donors are and what kinds of acknowledgement they appreciate is key.
Nancy Lackner says
For the first time, we chose not to include a donor list in my organization’s 2020 annual report. I have heard nothing about the omission from anyone, and all the comments I’ve heard about the report have been positive. Thank you for sharing your strong case for ditching the list. I concur!
Lisa Robinson says
I am not sure I totally agree with this. I do think that in a small community where people recognize their fellow community members names in such a list, then there is a chance that they could be influenced by the list. I have used a donor list in the past to help determine if I should donate to an organization that I do not know well but admire their mission. Also seeing who in my community supports our local non-profits (at whatever level) helps me to be ever more appreciative of their contributions and my community.
Sarah Russin says
This all makes sense. What are your thoughts around special event recognition for individuals – same?