Designing Donor Recognition at Historic Sites

Plaque recognizing James Baxter, donor of the Portland Public Library, 1888.

Plaque recognizing James Baxter, donor of land and building of the Portland (Maine) Public Library, as well as the architect F. H. Fassett, 1888.

Major donors or supporters of a historic site are often recognized with a panel or plaque. Most traditional is a panel listing names of donors, often distinguished by the size of their gift, but it can often appear to be more like a somber memorial than a sincere and thoughtful appreciation. That’s the major reason for avoiding off-the-shelf recognition systems of wall plaques and engraved bricks, which have become so common they’ve lost their punch. For historic sites, this is especially important because they should be integrated and complementary to its design and significance, not merely plopped into place as an afterthought.

Donor recognition is typically installed near an entrance (either interior or exterior) so it can be readily seen by visitors on a wall, floor, or freestanding panel; made of durable materials that resist vandalism and years of cleaning; and can be easily corrected or updated in the future. Careful planning and consideration of alternatives will reveal methods that are most appropriate for your organization.

The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties can guide decisions about design, location, and installation by considering it as an addition or alteration to your site. For example, the design should “be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment” and not give a “false sense of history.” It should be installed in a manner that is reversible and will not cause permanent damage to the building or landscape.

Preservation architects and landscape architects can provide advice but also consider sign designers and cemetery monument makers. Fundraising professionals at hospitals and universities can suggest strategies for naming opportunities , terms (lifetime or limited?), categories, and listing (alphabetical or date of gift?). Donor recognition can be sensitive and complex, so to avoid misunderstandings, you’ll want to read the article from the Association of Fundraising Professionals and review an example of a policy from Supporting Advancement.  If your organization has a useful policy or guidelines on donor recognition, please share them in the comments below.

To introduce your staff and board to the issues of donor recognition at historic sites, I’ve prepared a one-page color version of this post with several images as a handout to spark conversation. Thanks to Mike Buhler, Executive Director at San Francisco Heritage, for suggesting this topic.

1 thought on “Designing Donor Recognition at Historic Sites

  1. ljminzes

    I couldn’t agree more and deal with this on a very regular basis. I’d love to chat with you more about this at AASLH this week…


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