On Donor Clubs – Take 2 (of 3): Branding

On Donor Clubs – Take 2 (of 3): Branding

In 1988, when I first started with The Nature Conservancy as the Membership Coordinator of the Oregon Chapter, a $1,000 donation got you lifetime membership with TNC. I distinctly remember my TNC colleagues questioning my judgment when I suggested several years later that life memberships were getting in the way of annual $1,000 memberships. “No one is going to give $1,000 through the mail,” one colleague told me.

How times have changed.

I did create a $1,000 membership “donor club” in Oregon, uninspiringly called the “Chairman’s Circle”. I started another one for the Wisconsin Chapter about eight years later with a much better name, the “Warren Knowles Society”. Since then I have helped land trusts and other organizations in several states establish donor clubs with ever more creative and colorful names: the Voyageurs, the Blue-Green Society, and the Land Legacy Club, among others. Each has been successful right away and each has sustained that success over time.

Along the way, I believe I’ve figured some things out that I can pass along, the most important of which is branding. According to David Landsdowne in his book, The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money, donor clubs work because “they fulfill a host of human desires and needs, not the least of which are our need to feel connected and our desire to be treated special.” Branding is what delivers that feeling of connectedness and exclusivity. Donor clubs can’t be separated from regular membership just by the dollar amount. They must be really different. Here are several thoughts on how.

Start with the name itself. Warren Knowles was a Wisconsin governor known for his outdoor ethic very much in the Aldo Leopold mold. The name for Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s Blue-Green Society was based on an interest in protecting water resources (the blue) by protecting land resources (the green). Mississippi Valley Conservancy’s Bluffland Guardians name is self-descriptive. Choose carefully. Select a name that is evocative, emotional, and non-polarizing. Select a name that people will want to affiliate with.

Next craft a signature event just for the donor club. A dinner, perhaps. A hike or other adventure. The best events make people want to enlist so they can be included in the event. In Oregon we had dinner in the deep woods, prepared by a local chef and shared with 1,200-year-old trees. Donors were asked to bring their own wine – which meant we had very good wine. In Wisconsin, we hosted a preserve hike during the afternoon, followed by a picnic dinner at a nearby outdoor Shakespearean amphitheater. One of the actors spoke to us during dinner and performed a short reading in character. Then we stayed for the play of course! Other organizations have annual canoe/kayak trips, plein air painting exhibitions, or special guided hikes with celebrity guides. The point is whatever you do, make it exclusive and special. Be creative. Make it fun.

For most donor clubs I recommend stationary and materials that are club specific. Modify your organizational logo slightly, or print letterhead on paper with a different color or texture. Earth tones are nice, or recycled paper with heavy texture. Print up matching envelopes and a membership brochure that matches both the color schemes and style of the letterhead. Think about printing simple note cards out of the same stock for thank you notes and invitations. All of this is expensive if it’s not already in the budget, but the return on investment will be high if you succeed in attracting new $1,000 members.

Other possibilities include lapel pins, semi-permanent name tags for events, and a special newsletter insert just for club members.

But the most important branding element for your donor club is the list itself. Like a social register, people like to find their own name and look for those of their friends. Make sure you spell everyone’s name correctly! Keep printed copies current and mail them out at least once each year, with “as of” dates to differentiate them. Always include a copy in the renewal notices sent to current club members. Regularly keep it updated in newsletters and on the website.

A well thought-out donor club will attract new donors to it just to “see and be seen” with other members of the club. Making it visible, FUN, and separate from regular membership is the job of the branding. Get the branding right and you can raise a lot more money.

Got other ideas? Let me know and I’ll post them here.


David Allen


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