Working in the New Normal: Annual Fund Strategies for Today

As you read this I have probably already sat down to meet with my very first boss, who is hiring me for the second time: first as her annual fund assistant, and this time as her consultant for her school’s annual fund.  As I prepared for our visit, I have been reflecting on how the annual fund that she and I built back in 199…whatever…  has changed from the practices we see our clients implementing today.

thenAndNowFrontHere is my running list of Annual Fund Strategies:  Then and Now (Add a big, booming voice as you say “Then and Now” in your head for added effect… Nice, right?)   What would you add to your list?  How has your annual fund approach changed in the last ten years?  Or the last five?  What happened before 2008 that is just not coming back?  Post comments here or leave your ideas on our Facebook page.  We’ll collect them all and post in a future blog entry.

Then…  Segmenting your mailing was enough.  I will admit to having a 32-segment mailing once, each with their own slightly parsed difference between one letter text and another.  Everyone got fundamentally the same message and everyone was just asked to “give, give, give… trust us and we’ll do the rest.”  Unrestricted dollars that could slop around to every corner of the budget were the only thing to do.

NOW:  There are few programs today who don’t see a higher level of engagement and more inspired giving when donors are given the ability to be activists.  CFOs (and I) still need unrestricted dollars: that will always be the heart of a strong annual fund, but making tangible the impact of giving to the annual is mandatory.   No more “margin of excellence”; annual fund dollars help provide things like the manipulatives underpinning the mathematics program in the after-school experience.  Gone is “bridge the gap” talk about other revenue sources and the annual fund; the annual fund helps ensure that mission staff have the iPads and tech training they need to collect and evaluate data on the efficacy of your program in the field.  These dollars all need to hit your budget directly, but need specifics around them that make it clear and concrete what they accomplish.

An extra idea, building on this one?  Look for three to five “big buckets” within your budget toward which your annual fund gifts can be designated (not restricted!  This makes your CFO happy!).  For schools these categories are often:  financial aid, faculty salaries, library and technology, spaces for learning, athletics, etc…  What would those big budget areas be for your organization?  Allowing your donors to vote with their dollars for the things that most resonate for them not only provides one more good reason to step up giving, but also gives you a clear road map for how to steward these donors.

…which leads to “Then and Now” #2…

Then… Stewardship was something you did for endowment donors, donors of Chairs, building naming, scholarships when they became fully funded and probably only did once:  put the plaque up, name the new Chair holder, have a dinner, and wash your hands of it.

NOW:  That pig isn’t going to fly for even one second.  Not only must stewardship be a year-on-year institutional value that is woven throughout your relationship building with your donors, it is a universal.  All annual fund donors deserve WORLD CLASS stewardship.  Getting used to talking about the annual fund in tangible, specific ways is the first step.  Understanding your donors’ motivation through their gift designation is a second step.  Getting people to help you take on this project – even with its enormous value add – is the third.

Try this:  rather than just asking volunteers to “please make 10 (or 20 or 30) calls” to past donors, thank-a-thon style, let your volunteers know that you have $75,000 (or $500,000 or $5M) worth of thank you calls to make and would they be willing to take $12,000 of that.  Then keep reporting back:  “Your thank you calls valued at $75,000 last year turned into repeat gifts of $83,000 this year.”  Who wouldn’t feel great and motivated to do more?

Finally, a NOW and NOW:

Maybe you saw these two incredible stories about focused giving contests – one at Columbia that raised $7M in one day (ONE DAY!  CloEve Demmer, who spearheaded this is a friend of ours and, no kidding, one smart lady!) and the other that may have helped inspire and guide Columbia’s efforts:  Giving Days.

Among the reason these two focused campaigns worked is that they borrowed the “vocabulary” of gaming to bring fun into the annual fund.  (C’mon.  I had to.  Put the FUN back in the annual fund? A classic knee slapper.  To development officers only.)

  • These initiatives had a near-term, reachable goal for which everyone was responsible.
  • They had a clear beginning, middle and end to their quest.  A 365 day campaign is the AF Director’s reality but soooooo long for a volunteer.
  • They had rules of engagement:  certain volunteers could use any of a variety of outreach tools, but had to do it themselves and accounted back to “home base” with their results.
  • They knew what winning was going to mean:  dollars, new donors, repeat donors.

We play games because we love taking on tasks that are exactly hard enough.  How can you use today’s tools – email, social media, video, podcasting, blogging, etc… to make your annual fund volunteers’ job more fun and more of a game?  And, how about using this to jump start a monthly giving program?  Europeans envy our culture of giving in many ways, but are befogged by why we don’t embrace monthly giving programs more fully.  Deploy your volunteers on a quest for new monthly donors!

Another Now:  these campaigns were terrific, engaging, generated great excitement and energy.  But what do we do the other 364 days a year?  Once upon a time, we mailed a lot of letters, made slightly fewer phone calls and almost never left the office.  Today a robust annual fund program must be anchored with personal visits to top donors in conjunction with the major gift staff (we have a great resource on boosting annual giving in a campaign here.), to leadership donors to explore their passion and focus for their giving, to new potential leadership donors, to lapsed donors and to volunteers.  If there were one more position everyone could add right now, I would vote for a solid individual giving officer who LOVES being on the road, closing $1,000, $10,000, $50,000 annual gifts three days out of five.

Are the fundamentals of annual giving the same?  Yes.  I agree that they are.  Are there so many more ways to be creative and innovative in reaching your community of supporters?  Absolutely.  The annual fund is more fun.

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