Refrigerator artwork is deeply personal and meaningful to the owner but, to the outside world, may not hold much value. The value of the crayon-colored rainbow scribbled on a piece of paper flows from the little person who drew it and their relationship to you, the owner of the refrigerator.
On the other hand, we may have no personal relationship with a world-renowned artist and, yet, can still find value in her bold and moving use of color or his lifelike and emotional depiction of human drama. In many instances, we assign value to this artwork based on perceived expertise of the artist, which is informed by the assessment of others.
We assign value, then, based on some measure of personal sentiment (the refrigerator art), on some measure of world-acclaim (the expert artist), or some mixture of the two. This issue of how we assign value to art (or anything else) should be important to us in advancement because we should aim to provide our donors with personal and meaningful experiences and expressions of our gratitude for their generosity.
For many institutions, saying “thank you” to donors includes some form of “artwork.” Perhaps you provide your best donors with a beautifully-designed, engraved, crystal desktop award. Or maybe you give away less expensive chotskies. Perhaps you give your donors some version of “Platinum,” “Gold,” “Silver,” or “Bronze,” lapel pins based on giving levels. If your institution expresses its gratitude to donors in these or similar ways, let me quietly suggest that you could do better.
When we say thank-you by adopting the world’s assignment of value (e.g., the crystal award or the platinum lapel pin), we are suppressing the valuable impact of personal sentiment. But when we extend our gratitude in the form of something more meaningful from our institution, we increase the likelihood that our personal relationship with the donor is enhanced.
For instance, perhaps there is painting or sketch by a student or client that can be duplicated and framed. Or maybe there is an inspirational photograph of your campus taken by a professor. Or perhaps you can create a tradition by saying thank-you to donors at a specific level with the same gift each year that has special meaning at your institution.
When the value of our donor “thank you” is derived from who we are, what we do, and our relationship with the donor, the world may not place much value on it, but our donors will. Just like that crayon-colored rainbow on their refrigerator.