3 steps to take before creating a new donor recognition wall

When most university development executives and donors hear the term “donor wall,” it immediately calls to mind a list of engraved names etched on a wall plaque. This public recognition has been a universally accepted practice right up there with commemorative bricks, both of which served their purpose for the Baby Boomer generation. But, as new generations of donors consider their financial plans and an explosion of new technologies continue to evolve, it’s time to rethink what donor walls could be.

Many universities are upgrading their donor walls with digital interactive displays. All too often though, I’m seeing the seemingly limitless potential of this medium stocked with little more than biographies of key donors. We can do better.

I started thinking about this after visiting a prominent business school. In one of their main hallways, they installed a beautiful digital display recognizing their donors. After putting significant time and financial resources against this project, they were disappointed when it was regularly ignored by students. At this moment, I realized that if we want people to engage with a donor wall in any meaningful way, we need to provide content that is useful to its audience.

Occidental college video display

If you were an MBA student at this university, which display would you make time out of your day to stop at: one featuring a profile of a donor 40 years your senior or one that gives you stock updates, job openings at nearby corporations and networking opportunities with connected donors? I’m guessing the latter. Why? Because it’s useful to you. The process of matching content with audience needs is important even if students aren’t the intended target.

Now imagine this interactive wall featured a title across the top that read “Brought to you by [insert donor’s name here]”. The donor, in this case, gains a halo effect by being the conveyors of engaging information, further endearing users and driving interest in their personal story.

If your university needs to create a more engaging way for your audience members to connect with your donor, the following steps will help set you and your team up for success.

#1 – Tailor the usefulness of your content to your audience

If you want your core audience to interact with the donor wall instead of routinely passing it by, you need to provide content that will be useful to them. If your audience is any of the following groups, here’s an idea at what might interest them:

  • Prospects – Content geared at Gen-Z should be authentic, persuasive and customized. For instance, a donor wall integrated with a campus tour might present content featuring a recent graduate/current student who offers specific advice to the prospect. Information like “the top three things I wish I knew on my campus visit” is an inviting, informative and genuine way to show off the school’s culture.
  • Current students – Imagine an interactive donor wall in your engineering school that shows students the real-world projects that recent graduates are producing in the field and giving them a way to connect to this potential mentor.
  • Parents– More so than students, parents of undergraduates are concerned about job placement; this is the ROI for their son or daughter’s education. In an interactive wall geared toward parents, include messaging that shows how students took their education to work for successful companies.

Alumni Letters in action at the B1G Experience

#2 Create the most value for your donor

If your donor is one of the above groups, it may be helpful to understand how they want to be recognized based on generational differences in attitude.

Based on research from our friends at Frank Magid & Associates, the below is a simple framework outlining would most appeal to each generation:

  • Millennials – Born between the years 1980 – 2000, your youngest graduates are motivated by the need to understand that their donation made a direct impact on a specific person. Do this by showcasing personal and customized stories on your interactive display.
  • Generation X – Born between the years 1965 – 1984, Gen-Xers are driven by cynicism and a need to know that their gift is being used to create real results. Creating stories that highlight how their gift is delivering on that will be most impactful to them.
  • Baby Boomers – Born between the years of 1946 – 1964, Boomers find value in external recognition, especially highlighting their name and accomplishments.

#3 – Track impact on your audience and donor

In order to prove your donor wall has impact on your desired audience, it’s important to clearly identify at the start what metrics you will use to measure success.

Will you track the number of people who use the wall, or perhaps even more specific – the most clicked on piece of content?

Do you measure anecdotal feedback from visitors who say they learned something new after stopping at the wall?

These metrics may be qualitative or quantitative, but either way they establish how to measure your success and can be useful information for your donor – and for you the next time you’re working on your next capital campaign.

About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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