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Why Do Buildings Have Names?

Updated: Apr 19

Development was a career, the publisher and former Ambassador Walter Annenberg made what was then the largest gift ever to an independent school, 12 Million Dollars. I was a Junior at the Peddie School at the time and I was on campus for the announcement and celebration of this incredible philanthropy. I remember the excitement; I think of it when I do my own “happy dance” after closing a big gift (that dance is an important part of the Team Kat & Mo

Scholarships, a new Arts Center, increased faculty pay, expanding student programming – the future stories of impact were easy to imagine. Interestingly, that gift was made without any strings or restrictions. Much like the 2020 gifts distributed by MacKenzie Scott, this gift was to be spent or invested as the school determined.

It was likely about that time that I noticed that the buildings on campus, and on the campuses of the colleges I had started to visit, were named. At Peddie, I noticed that the buildings held names that were repeated on the Board of Trustees letterhead. These were, I figured out and also was taught, another product of philanthropy. And when I arrived at Penn, I saw that the Annenberg name was featured there as well; I felt right at home.

There is a lot of news around the naming of buildings these days. Universities have been called to task over the slaveholders, segregationists, and avowed racists that they’ve honored on their campuses. Clemson University in South Carolina renamed its Honors College. Princeton University removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. At the time that these names were added to the hallowed halls of higher learning they were selected to honor individuals. But importantly, these were not honors granted as a result of philanthropy and so the Universities have been able (sadly not without alumni backlash) to make statements reflecting current values by revoking these honoraria.

But what about buildings that are named as a result of, and in exchange for, generous gifts? Sometimes those deals sour as well. NYU Langone Medical Center, Tufts University, and the Louvre Museum all confronted this challenge when the Sackler family, and their company Purdue Pharma, was charged federally for their role in the opioid epidemic. The Sackler name has been removed from their buildings and programs.

Often the significant naming opportunities that are part of fundraising campaigns are the pinnacle of engagement for major donors. It may come as a surprise that the gifts reflected in named buildings do not always fund construction or building support. Significant program or scholarship support is often rewarded with a naming opportunity.

The key to these solicitation plans– as in all fundraising – is to understand how the donor wants to be recognized. Some donors may step up to the opportunity to be highlighted in a campaign by naming a building or program. It is the most loyal supporter of a school, museum, hospital, or program who will want the public recognition and will be most interested in a gift that will be recognized in perpetuity (or at least until the building becomes obsolete). They are leaders who are willing to share the news of their gift in order to inspire others to join them in support of the mission.

Things to keep in mind when planning a campaign that includes building naming opportunities:

  1. Gift agreements, like employment contacts or athlete’s corporate sponsorship deals, can include “morals clauses” that allow your organization to remove a name should the donor act in ways that are contrary to your values. Remember when Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods lost their endorsement deals due to their bad choices?

  2. Listen to your donors. What do they see as the risks and opportunities?

  3. Planned gifts are rarely used for an entire capital naming opportunity but can be a valuable tool for helping a donor reach the established gift value.

And a point that Sharon will surely address with anyone who wants to talk about corporate partnerships - campaign naming gifts aren’t necessarily different than corporate arena deals. Your strongest partner may have corporate marketing dollars to spare (share?).

To learn more about the types of donor opportunities that might attract the right donors to your building (or conference table)– reach out to us at


Amy (Mouse)

NYU Langone Medical Center

Read Our Other Blog : Why do people donate?

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