Fundraising Q/A: We want to rename a building but are concerned about alienating the donor it was originally named after. Suggestions?

Naming a building after a major benefactor is a time-honored tradition and one way to express the institution’s gratitude. It is almost inevitable, however, that the building will outlive its usefulness and be torn down and replaced or radically altered (probably with the assistance of another donor) eventually.

So, start “being careful” from the start, when you are crafting the gift agreement. For example, when we decided to rename a Harvard building in honor of a generous donor, we specified that if the building were to be torn down, the donor’s name would go on another building.

Some organizations build in a standard clause with an expiration date of – say, 75 years – for naming rights. Others have learned from harsh experience to prepare for the worst; one institution found itself chiseling the name of someone convicted of a felony off one of its buildings. (Yes, that’s now a clause.)

“Being careful” also involves being sensitive to the donor (and/or his or her family) if and when the time comes to retire a donor name. I am happy to offer a positive example from my own experience.

My great-great-grandfather Thomas Dee was a prominent businessman in Ogden, Utah, where I grew up. After his death in 1905, his nine children made substantial donations to several town institutions. An elementary school was named in recognition of the family’s contributions to the Ogden School Foundation.

After serving faithfully over several decades, the Dee Elementary School was slated for closing at the end of the 2015/2016 school year. Plans were underway for the construction of an innovative new school focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at a nearby site, to replace it. School District leadership proposed that a new name reflecting the school’s new mission be selected.

I learned about this from a Dee family member who still lives in Ogden.

The District had approached him about the name change early in 2015. He said he was fine with it but observed that other family members might feel differently. He suggested that the District write a letter explaining the change and the reason why to Dee family members.

The District’s Director of Communications began working on a letter, circulated a draft to a few family members for review, and requested an address list for as many family descendants of Thomas Dee as we could muster. The plan was to issue the letter before the renaming was publicly announced.

It was a good letter, acknowledging the significance of the Dee family name in Ogden and all the contributions it stood for both historically and currently.

Even more importantly, the entire process was thoughtful and empathetic. There has been no family backlash that I know of; I certainly was fine with the change. The District now has kicked off a public campaign to invite names for the new school that reflect its new mission.

Well done!

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