Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rethinking "Naming Opportunities"

What’s in a name? Well, when it comes to fundraising, it all depends on how it’s offered and to whom.
What doesn’t work well is the wholesale offering of “naming opportunities.” Distributing a list of buildings or programs that you are willing to name at a particular price is, quite simply, counter-philanthropic. In other words, the practice is not only inept and ineffective, it undercuts institutional dignity and, as a result, diminishes its perceived philanthropic stature. Let’s consider why this is so.
Throughout time, what do human societies assign the most value to? That which is most rare. The rarer the element, the commodity, the privilege, or the access to a social group, the more we prize it. I’m not arguing this is the way life should be, only the way it is. If institutions of higher learning seek to distinguish themselves through highly selective admissions, awarding precious slots to only the most accomplished and qualified students, why wouldn’t they apply the same logic to their naming policies?
If a thoughtfully chosen group of donors is carefully and quietly approached, and told, quite genuinely, the institution would prefer their names on important buildings and programs because they embody the institution’s highest values, a true compliment is paid in the process of soliciting gifts. And, when an institution announces and confers a donor’s name on one of its structures or programs, explaining how that donor is exemplary of what the institution stands for, the institution and donor are viewed with higher esteem. Yes, most people understand that money was a part of the consideration but the also know the institution didn’t just shop around the honor either.
Imagine, for instance, if you were trying to raise money for a new business school building. You could disseminate a list of naming opportunities to try to attract a set of donors who might like to see their names prominently displayed or you could ask which business leaders possess the personal and professional qualities you would most like to see manifest in your graduates. You could then approach these exemplary business leaders saying that you would like this new structure, and next phase of your business school programming, “to built on the example of the most ethical and effective business leaders in the community, like you.” You might do that by creating a “business hall of fame” in the atrium of the building with busts and personal histories of no more than five remarkable leaders (the fewer the honorees, the greater the distinction). You might also add the business school would also like to be the repository for the oral histories and professional papers of these five critical figures so that business school students of the future could continue to learn from their successes. You could approach the business leaders themselves, or the chairs of their boards, or their closest associates, or their widows and children with confidence and an easy conscience knowing you were trying to do the right thing in the right way. That’s the difference between expedient, short-term fundraising and practicing true philanthropy.
But even when taking this thoughtful and genuine approach, please remember that no one makes a considerable donation just to see his or her name on a structure or program. They want their name associated with something of lasting value. You must, therefore, make a compelling case for the how the requested funds are to used. You must make it clear that its not just about a building itself but about the people and programs it will empower, the higher level of service it will make possible, and the enduring impact these new initiatives will have. You can’t just say it; you, and the institution you represent, must be prepared and determined to live to your word.
No it’s not about “naming opportunities,” a phrase and concept that’s too cute and by half, but about what your name and reputation stand for in selecting the names of those you can stand by and with over a long time.

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