Fundraising Q/A: We’re thinking about naming one of our programs after a major donor. Good or bad idea?

The answer is yes; it all depends on why and how you do it. But first, a cautionary note:  Don’t presume that a significant gift is all about recognition.

Some donors (including me) may be offended at the presumption that public recognition is the main motivator for their largesse. Most significant donors, in my experience, are motivated by a desire to have an impact on something they care about. They may even prefer anonymity. The key is to acknowledge their gift in a way that is meaningful and comfortable for them, not you.

I’ve seen both good and bad examples of naming opportunities. The worst basically involve selling something for a price. “We’re willing to name this space for a million dollars,” is not the right approach. Namings should always be done in recognition of a contribution to your cause, even if in reality it is to satisfy the donor’s ego.

It comes back to one of our favorite mantras: “Mission, message and money.” You need to tie the gift – and the giver – to its purpose and how it will contribute to the achievement of your mission.  Your institution and the donor are partnering to make positive change in an area of shared interest.

Dartmouth College’s renaming of its medical school after Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), a 1925 graduate, and his wife Audrey offers one example.

The school was renamed the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in 2012, in honor of the couple’s generosity during their lives and through their estate.  Dartmouth had known for many years that it would become owner of the multi-million dollar Geisel empire, which manages the rights to Dr. Seuss books and other products after Ted and Audrey’s deaths.

Dartmouth may have expected but by no means took for granted the Geisel’s generosity. In 2002, nine years after Ted’s death, Audrey was awarded an honorary degree at Dartmouth Commencement.  In 2012, she was clearly moved by the renaming of the medical school:

“Ted would be proud to have his name forever connected to one of America’s finest schools of medicine…. Given my background as a nurse, this moving gesture on the part of Dartmouth joins Ted’s great love of his alma mater and my passion of caring for others through the practice of medicine.”

Dartmouth, for its part, made a point of explicitly linking the gift to its intended use and the institution’s mission:

“Audrey and Ted Geisel have cared deeply for this institution, and we are enormously proud to announce this lasting partnership [which will] amplify support for medical students… and accelerate the research aspirations of faculty. The exceptional benefaction of the Geisel family will support Dartmouth’s goals of becoming one of the top medical schools in the world for preparing physician leaders who will tackle the increasingly complex undertaking of transforming health care.”

I see this as a good story about patience, flexibility and long term impact, as well as an effective use of naming to recognize a donor contribution. That said, you have to be willing to accept that not everyone may see it that way; at least a few Dartmouth alumni were rumored to be less than thrilled about the renaming. Maybe they were grinches, or maybe they had good reasons.

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