Look, this article is a dangerous one to write, because donor walls are boring, date terribly and have one primary purpose, function and design. In terms of technology it’s severely lacking in the wow factor and we would be doing readers a disservice if we simply said ‘let’s just make them digital’.

Simply transferring a name etched in wood or fabricated steel on to a large screen monitor as a way of ‘modernising’ the approach isn’t so much an evolution but one that is fundamentally lacking imagination and an opportunity to not only steward major gift donors but also tell your story and those that gave in an engaging way.

So without falling into the trap of putting up what in essence are just new virtual noticeboards, what options could help transform this traditional donor recognition approach and have it as a compelling reason rather than a simple bi-product of a gift proposal.

Much of that promise might just be found in permanent art installations. A focal point for an organization’s lobby, atrium or grounds. Not just a park bench with a fading gold plaque but a colorful, one of a kind piece that can tell a multitude of stories both from a mission, vision, donor and beneficiary standpoint. A piece that will act as a magnet for engagement and discussion rather than a snapshot of history that remains static in perpetuity rather than have the ability to grow and adapt.

It’s time to draw people to your organization’s success not just capture it in the binary.

And the great thing about art is that it can appeal in a myriad of ways depending on the story teller. That storyteller can be the CEO, board members, development staff, even the cleaners. When you gaze on a piece of art it evokes different things in different people. When you create a piece of art it can be interpreted in different ways by different people. It broadens horizons and enhances narratives.

And there impart lies the main crux of this need to reimagine donor walls. It can be so much more than you imagine!

There are some great examples that exist already of which can be seen on the following links:

Centro Roberto Garza Sada, Universidad de Monterrey

University College London

University of Washington Foster School of Business, Seattle, Washington

Just thinking out loud, I could imagine an Engineering Department at any higher education institute 3D printing QR codes that could be displayed as a ‘pulse’ or ‘algorithm’ where the shadows that form on the wall could be scanned to share donor stories.

The artwork could also enhance your mission by the type of artist you commission to do the work. For example an artist that identifies as queer and of color from the communities you serve would enhance your committment to DEI, conceptualize impact through a different lens and help support local artists – a powerful message through intersectionality.

I could also see potential plays and extensions on the term perpetuity – and for organizations that might become more virtual as a result of COVID – through the use of Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) on the blockchain. “Non-fungible” means that the item is unique and can’t be replaced with something else. It’s one of a kind.

A lot of the current buzz around NFTs (and how it relates to nonprofits) is seen through the evolution of fine art collecting, only with digital art (think silent auctions & donations of artwork – its a speculative asset after all). The theory is that anyone can buy a van Gogh print yet only one person can own the original.

Every NFT is a unique token on the blockchain and while it could be like a van Gogh, where there’s only one absolutely legit actual version, it could also be like a trading card, where there’s 5 or hundreds of numbered copies of the same artwork. So the original art piece could reside at the organization for which the gift supported but each donor could carry ‘a piece of it’ as a family heirloom. 

At the end of the day, donor stewardship should be more than ticking off some traditional menu items. Nonprofit organizations have always been creative and nimble on the ground, seeking unique solutions to unique (and largely individual) problems. So why do we revert to the most basic approaches in how we share our stories of impact, why does everything have to go ‘on the wall’ and why can’t it be woven into the very structures of our buildings and their surroundings? I challenge you to think outside the box on this one and remember you can also try and cultivate a donor to donate or underwrite the piece (and the installation)!

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