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Turning Gratitude into Great Design: How to Infuse Institutional Character into Your School’s Donor Recognition Spaces

Dwight Englewood Hajjar STEM Center © Garrett Rowland

As public funding for schools and cultural institutions grows scanter and scanter, financial gifts from alumni and other donors have become paramount to ensuring budgets stay in the black. Maintaining a healthy influx of outside contributions quite often determines whether annual initiatives stay afloat or fall by the wayside, and this new reality shows no signs of changing. To maintain forward momentum, schools, museums, and other cultural institutions must consistently plan and execute effective fundraising campaigns.

One of the fundamental though often overlooked aspects of fundraising is honoring the people and groups behind individual donations. Unfortunately, too many institutions put very little creative thought into how they celebrate donor loyalty. They erect staid spaces, usually in the form of donor walls, that don’t reflect the institution’s brand or culture. They locate these walls in poorly trafficked locations and neglect to integrate them into an overall architectural scheme. As a result, many donor walls look like haphazard afterthoughts rather than appropriate commemorations of generosity.

Failure to recognize donors in a proper manner can prevent alumni and other possible donors from pledging their support. The truth is schools and cultural institutions can no longer afford to treat donors as afterthoughts. Donors expect to see physical testimonials to their generosity and too many institutions still believe brick pavers with names or bronze panels constitute sufficient design strategies. They do not. Thankfully, this older style of thinking is slowly losing traction as schools and institutions recognize the importance of creating donor spaces that are appropriate in scale and architecturally integrated into a larger design program. A well-designed recognition space speaks to an institution’s character, and makes the donors feel like an integral part of the overall community and culture.

Take for example Dwight-Englewood Hajjar STEM Center in Englewood, New Jersey. In the years leading up to the completion of a new building, the school received monetary gifts from multiple donors, and these gifts allowed the school to realize a world-class STEM center. After some back and forth between the administration and a Gensler design team, Dwight-Englewood decided to celebrate the individuals and groups responsible for these donations by creating a donor wall that is part of the overall learning experience.

Dwight Englewood Hajjar STEM Center © Garrett Rowland

The faculty at Dwight-Englewood strongly believe that every space within the school should, in some way, enable teachable moments and convey the school’s brand, which prioritizes open and accessible knowledge at every turn. To honor this mission, Gensler devised a design solution inspired by DNA sequencing. The design carves individual donors names into different sized panels of cedar wood and arranges the panels on a prominent wall. The panels function as components of an ever changing donor recognition wall—as more donors contribute, more panels join the wall, changing the overall appearance and organically expressing the growing donor landscape in a visually compelling way. The model also communicates a sense of donor hierarchy using different sized panels and modules without crassly attaching dollar signs to individual donor’s names.

Dwight Englewood Hajjar STEM Center © Garrett Rowland

Creating teachable moments and conveying useful information to students also informed the design of donor recognition spaces at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse. After receiving a generous donation from Dick Clark Studios — Clark studied advertising and radio at Syracuse before launching one of the most prolific careers in the history of broadcast journalism history — the Newhouse school began looking for a way to use the donation to not only celebrate Clark’s legacy but give students and prospective students a sense of all the career paths open to broadcast journalism majors.

Syracuse University Newhouse II School of Communications © Robert Benson

In the atrium of the new building lobby, the design team at Gensler decided to honor the media icon with a two-story, bas-relief Dick Clark Studios logo executed in “Syracuse Orange” millwork panels. The result is a rhythmic quality that undulates like a radio wave and integrates other architectural features, like the master staircase, in an almost cinematic way. To give visitors, students, and prospective students a sense of where a career in broadcasting might take them, the design team created an interactive digital experience consisting of photos, video and audio clips of Clark’s most famous moments as a public communicator. The display is inspirational and educational in nature—the new lobby actively shapes the learning process by dynamically presenting information about the history of broadcasting to both students and other interested parties.

Syracuse University Newhouse II School of Communications © Robert Benson

A successful donor landmark reflects the character and culture of the institution to which donors are pledging their support. The Dallas Opera House does this in an exemplary manner. A Gensler team designed a donor wall that conjures a series of musical crescendos. Individual donor names live on prominent pieces of dark wood arranged to create a visually arresting evocation of musical notation. This bold design is part of an ongoing campaign to make opera more accessible to the city’s younger residents, who make-up a growing portion of the active leisure class.

The Dallas Opera Donor Wall © Joe Aker

Exceptional design can foster a sense of loyalty with alumni and other potential donors. It can create an affinity between a donor and an institution while serving as a visual manifestation of the institution’s brand and values. As donors continue to play growing roles in ensuring the economic health of schools and cultural institutions, it’s critically important to treat donations in a way that effectively commemorates donor generosity.

Brian Brindisi is a design director for the Lifestyle-Brand Design studio and Regional Brand Design Leader at Gensler's New York office. His portfolio includes education, mixed-use, cultural, and corporate projects. Outside of Gensler, Brian continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor at the School of Visual Arts where he teaches visual identity and branding.contact him at brian_brindisi@gensler.com.

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