Friend, Ally, Visionary

When I started my Fulbright project in September, one of the first colleagues that I met at the American Red Cross National Headquarters was a lady in charge of Tiffany Circle, a society of women leaders and philanthropists. I must have asked about the origins of the name as only moments later I found myself admiring the famous Tiffany windows with her in the Board of Governors Hall. That was the beginning of my journey to the world of donor engagement programs and donor recognition programs.

Casey Trees, an awesome organization that works in the DC area to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the city, has an excellent example of a donor engagement program. They offer five membership levels with clearly defined benefits from priority registrations to classes to complimentary tickets to special events. A gift of $50 makes you a Friend, $100 an Ally, and $500 a Steward. Double this and with a gift of $1,000 you become a Protector. With a gift of $2,500, you get to call yourself a Visionary, and you get a personal guided tour of the Casey Tree Farm in Berryville, VA.

The donor recognition program of Zonta International Foundation is another text-book example: They recognize donors by pins ranging from a simple Bronze pin ($100) to a 15-stone Emerald pin ($175,000 lifetime donation). Additionally, major donors get invited to special Donor Receptions with the leadership of the organization during conventions.

Red Cross Square

American Red Cross offers an even wider variety of donor experiences and paths for individual major donors.  The Clara Barton Society recognizes individuals and families whose annual giving is $1,000-$10,000. The next recognition levels are Humanitarian Circle ($10,000-$25,000), Red Cross Leadership Society ($25,000-$100,000) and finally President’s Council ($100,000+). When cumulative lifetime giving to the American Red Cross exceeds $1 million, it is possible to become a member of the Chairman’s Council, and you can get your name engraved at the Red Cross Square.

In addition to these five recognition societies, the American Red Cross has two opt-in affinity groups that donors may choose to become a part of. Individuals who support the disaster relief mission of the American Red Cross with at least $10,000 annually may join the Humanitarian Circle-Disaster Supporter program. To name a few benefits these donors get, they can join disaster update calls with Red Cross Senior Management and take certain preparedness classes for free.

The other affinity group is the already mentioned Tiffany Circle. Women who donate at least $10,000 to the American Red Cross annually are eligible for membership. Additionally, the most generous Tiffany Circle donors with cumulative Tiffany Circle giving of over $100,000 or over $250,000 are recognized as Bonnie McElveen-Hunter (BMH) members and BMH Silver members respectively. Bonnie McElveen-Hunter is the current Chairman of the American Red Cross, the first female chairman in the history of the organization (and coincidentally also a former U.S. Ambassador to Finland!).

The annual highlight of the Tiffany Program is the Tiffany Circle Summit in Washington DC. This year the keynote speaker of the conference was Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post. I had the privilege to volunteer in the event during the Saturday workshops and the luncheon. It was a brilliant learning experience to see how professionally the show was run and how even the smallest details had been thought through. As a by-product, I got my first introduction to the conference ribbon galore. These ribbons are small pieces of imprinted ribbon that attach with an adhesive strip to the bottom of the participant badge or to the bottom of the next ribbon in the chain. They are used for recognizing, identifying and acknowledging people and their achievements. In this case, all Tiffany Circle members had a ribbon of certain color, American Red Cross staff members of another color, BMH and BMH Silver members obviously had an additional ribbon, as had the event sponsors and speakers and so on. Some very prominent ladies had probably nearly ten ribbons!

Tiffany Circle Summit

Coming from Finland where modesty is one of the biggest virtues, it has been fascinating to discover all the different ways to recognize donors, some classier and some flashier. Back home it is common that people prefer not to show off their wealth, and in general the tolerance for bragging is very low. That might partially explain why in Finland there are very few donor engagement and recognition programs for individuals. Of course, one also needs to keep in mind that the individual giving in Finland is minuscule compared to the US. Traditionally, major gifts other than occasional bequests are rare, as people consider paying taxes as their main contribution for the society.

The standard practice among Finnish nonprofits seems to be to accept donations of any size from private persons. Additionally, it is common to offer an option to become a monthly donor. For example, the Finnish Red Cross, the Cancer Society of Finland, The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, and The Baltic Sea Action Group have this type of a setup. None of them try to guide the donors to give a certain amount or state explicit incentives to increase the size of the donation to a higher level. Naturally it is implied that the more you give, the bigger difference you make.

I was able to find only one Finnish exception to this rule. That is CMI (Crisis Management Initiative), an organisation that works to resolve conflicts and to build sustainable peace, founded by the former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Martti Ahtisaari. In addition to being open for donations of any size, CMI offers an option of becoming a Premium Donor with an annual donation of €2,000. These donors get to be more intimately involved in the activities of CMI through regular meetings with staff, events, and tailored workshops. Networking opportunities with interesting people are also explicitly mentioned as an incentive to become a Premium Donor.

If you are familiar with any other Finnish nonprofits that offer donor recognition or engagement programs for private persons, I would love to hear of those.

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