What’s in a name?

For some, alienation and exclusion

When I was setting up a big capital campaign in 2021, was faced with a new question about fundraising that caused some unease for me and my staff.

As a fundraiser for 15+ years, there were some things that would stay the same: the giving triangle had to be developed, the case had to be tested, the donors had to be engaged. One other area that I did not think would change was the long-standing tradition of “selling” the name of the building or conference rooms: certain dollar-value donations could be exchanged for naming rights on the building or rooms. But over the course of several weeks I found myself feeling that that capital campaign had to be different. 

Barriers to social services prevent clients from seeking and receiving the help they need. These barriers come in many forms, including social shame for needing help, fear of deportation for receiving social services if clients are undocumented (which notably happened in 2020), concern that the help they seek will cause stress or not make a difference, and simply not knowing that there is a resource available in their community.

Ribbon cutting

In some ways philanthropy has inadvertently added to these barriers, primarily putting a spotlight on the vast economic and social distance between those who provide help and those who receive it. Lauding those who give at seven and eight-figure levels with naming opportunities may motivate some donors to give, but it may also alienate those seeking help. Oftentimes clients experience a sense of being “othered” by race, socioeconomic status, cyclical poverty, geography or language barriers. This sense is amplified when, time after time, those who find themselves in the position of needing help must seek it in buildings named after those who appear to be miles apart from their lived experience.

So I did not do what had always been done. I discussed with my team and decided that the naming policy would be different: we would not name the new building or interior rooms in exchange for donations. This policy did not do away with honoring or recognizing our donors; it is important to thank those who financially support the development of the new building. Plus this meant the naming could become something different altogether. That caused a new level of excitement and inclusion, which is what a capital campaign should do.