What’s in a Name? Commemorative Naming Opportunities | Sharpe Group
Posted August 6th, 2021

What’s in a Name? Commemorative Naming Opportunities

Commemorative Naming OpportunitiesWhen I was a young development officer, Bob Sharpe Sr. explained to me that the most important word in every language was a personal name, whether for an individual or family. Fundraisers have long embraced the idea of “commemorative naming opportunities” ranging from very small items like bookplates in a library (remember books?) and bricks in a walk to names on buildings, rooms, streets, stadiums, endowments, trusts and even entire institutions. But it is important to understand how a name will be used or commemorated and for how long.

Open-ended arrangements can lead to controversies, hurt feelings and even lawsuits. Remember that even when a name is carved in stone, figuratively or literally, it may not last forever. The same may be true of other donor agreements or even “perpetual endowments.” Forever is a very long time, and it is important to document commemorative naming opportunities to protect the interests of donors and the institutions they choose to support.

A rise in popularity

Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I was working in higher education for several comprehensive state universities, there were massive building efforts to accommodate the growing number of Baby Boomers who were headed to colleges and universities. As a result, many campuses transformed as old buildings were torn down and new facilities were constructed.

The building boom was often accompanied by a capital campaign that was targeted mainly toward brick-and-mortar projects, and, of course, there were new commemorative naming opportunities. As a part of our donor presentations, we had architectural models designed that allowed us to replace names on the model buildings to share with prospective donors. Donors could literally see their name go up in lights! But what about the old buildings and streets?

Honoring the past, building the future

Even if the donor is deceased, subsequent generations of their family are often associated with the institution. I was impressed by the care and attention that the alumni and development office took to take a campus-wide “census” of commemorative naming opportunities and the steps taken to preserve the signage or photograph the old buildings during the decades-long construction process.

As the work was drawing to a close, the pictures, plaques and historical memorabilia were reinstalled in the student center in an area that was used for alumni and development functions and served as a permanent reminder of those who had helped build the institution since the 18th century.

A few words of wisdom to remember

What to keep in mind when considering commemorative naming opportunities:

  1. Forever is a long time, so plan accordingly, setting expectations concerning time, restrictions and inevitable change.
  2. Put everything in writing with a memorandum of agreement, endowment agreement or naming guidelines. If possible, include language that alludes to possible changes in the future and provide a process for making changes.
  3. Names and naming rights are important to you, the donors and others. Remember to treat donors and their families like you would want to be treated.

A little bit of planning and preparation can help avoid major problems in the future, such as those that may arise with donor restrictions on the naming rights. If you are unsure about your current policies or agreements and would like additional advice, contact us here.

By Barlow T. Mann, General Counsel


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