Nice work! You’ve managed to drive a prospective donor to your institution’s online giving form. While getting them there is certainly an important step, there is no guarantee that they will continue and make a gift. Even if they do, will it be a positive or a frustrating experience? What happens next has a lot to do with how well your giving form is designed.
Here are 6 ways to improve your institution’s online giving form, increase your conversion rates and create a positive experience for your donors:
- Keep the layout and content simple, visually appealing, and balanced by using fonts that are easy to read and by avoiding unnecessary images, videos or links that might distract attention.
- Make sure it’s optimized for viewing on a mobile device.
- Minimize the amount of time required to complete the transaction by reducing the number of pages, fields and required data entry.
- Put the gift amount and designation selections early in the process (while donors are excited!) before the more tedious tasks of providing contact and credit card information.
- Offer an “other” option for donors to write-in a desired designation that isn’t otherwise listed.
- Highlight important options like recurring gifts or split designations and encourage desired outcomes by preselecting high gift amounts.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the online giving experience and the impact it can have on the way your donors think and feel about your institution. Design matters!
Annual Giving programs live and die by the calendar. They have 365 days each year to acquire as many donors and secure as much money as they can. Accordingly, annual giving professionals set goals and coordinate appeals and acknowledgements on an annual basis. That’s just what they do. But as more advancement programs find themselves in or planning major comprehensive fundraising campaigns, it’s important that annual giving programs also think outside of their annual box.
Any senior advancement staff and campaign manager who’s worth their weight understands and appreciates the importance of annual giving. Do they have a stake in the success of the annual fund? Absolutely. But they’re also under pressure to achieve other goals that are larger, longer-term and tied to the campaign. It’s on annual giving professionals to see things from that perspective – to describe their program’s results and strategies in the context of the campaign rather than just in terms of individual fiscal years. In other words, they need to learn campaign speak.
One way to exercise campaign speak is by reminding others what the annual fund represents as a percent of the total campaign revenue. For example, if the campaign goal is to raise $100 million dollars over a 7-year period and the annual fund raises about $2 million annually, then you can say that annual giving will represent about 14 percent of the total funds raised in the campaign.
You can also establish campaign goals for your annual giving program that transcend individual fiscal years. For example, if your goal is to increase alumni participation by from 10 percent to 11 percent in year one of the campaign, you should also stake out a goal for what it will be by the end of the campaign and for each year leading up to it. The same goes for annual fund revenue, donor retention rates, and the many other metrics that are indicators and drivers of annual giving success.
Campaign speak will not only help keep your annual giving program top of mind for senior leaders and campaign managers, but it will help you stretch your thinking about your program’s potential growth and impact over the long term.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE to register for AGN’s upcoming webinar on “Annual Giving in a Campaign Setting.”
Owning a restaurant can be risky business. In fact, some estimates show that 90 percent of new restaurants fail in the first year. To help increase their chances of success, some new restaurant owners hold a “soft launch” a few weeks before the real opening where only a small group of guests are invited to dine. This gives the staff an opportunity to test the menu, the kitchen equipment, and the overall service before officially opening their doors to the public.
Testing is also an important part of annual giving, where programs are challenged each new year to find fresh ways to appeal to prospective donors. There’s a seemingly unlimited number of things you can test, such as the sizes, shapes, and colors of your appeal envelopes or the “teaser” notes that you print on them. You can test signatories for your letters, ask amounts in your phone scripts, images on your websites, or subject lines in your emails. Want to know if offering premiums will resonate with your constituents? Test it.
One of the most important components of a test is the hypothesis. This is simply a statement (a guess, really) about what you think will happen. For example, “I think the red envelope will generate a higher response rate then the white envelope.” Hypotheses are important because they help you focus on the question you’re ultimately trying to answer rather than sitting back and waiting for some data point to stand up and say, “Hey, look at me!” Data points rarely do that.
There’s no need to make it complicated or overly granular. You can also test concepts or ideas simply by rolling them out on a smaller scale. For example, if you’re interested in knowing whether or not crowdfunding might be a way to enhance your annual giving efforts, then try running one or two small crowdfunding campaigns before you make any big decisions. The exercise itself will not only teach you a lot about what it takes to run a crowdfunding campaign, but the outcome may help you determine if it’s worth making additional investments.
Testing first can help you enhance your efforts incrementally without wasting resources unnecessarily or exposing your entire program to ineffective ideas.
Play it safe and smart. Test, don’t guess.
The Annual Fund is always going.
There’s always an upcoming mailing to produce, another phone call to make, or a new thank you note to write. There’s always a prospect who has yet to connect (or reconnect) with your institution. There are always reports to run, pledgers to remind, and volunteers to support.
Annual Fund campaigns are like life. The most dramatic stuff happens at the beginning and the end, but it’s what happens in the middle that defines.
So when you find yourself at the end of your fundraising year, be sure to stop. Get away. Take a vacation. Don’t think about it. Clean the slate. Because when you come back, it starts all over again.
A Chinese proverb goes like this: Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.
Annual Giving programs are well equipped to show and tell. Letters, emails, infographics, and videos are useful tools for telling stories and showing why a donor’s support is needed. Our institution is doing important things! Your support is necessary to achieve those things!
One of the benefits of show and tell is that it has economies of scale. The cost to reach an individual prospect goes down as the size of the target audience goes up. Unfortunately, scale isn’t as easy to take advantage of when it comes to involving prospects. That requires a little extra creativity.
Union College came up with a great way to involve large numbers of constituents in their giving day. Two weeks prior to the online event in April they sent a mail piece to 24,000 alumni, parents, and friends. It provided details about the day and included a detachable blank sign with the header, “I support Union because…”
Recipients, which included past donors as well as those who had never supported the college before, were asked to do three things:
- Write in their reason for supporting the college
- Take a selfie picture
- Post it on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with the giving day hashtag
Participants could then visit Union’s giving day website to view all the selfies and get updates on the day’s fundraising progress. The idea involved a lot of new and existing donors and helped them better understand the important role philanthropy plays at the college. In 24 hours, Union College secured gifts from 1632 donors – nearly 25 percent of whom had already made a gift earlier in the fiscal year.
Don’t assume that digital communication (e.g., email, texting, social media) is the only way to maintain contact with young alumni. Traditional channels like phone calls and print mail can also be useful ways to keep recent graduates connected. But you can’t take advantage of either one if you don’t have a current phone number or mailing address.
Maintaining good contact information on alumni is rarely an easy task. Keeping tabs on young alumni can be an even bigger challenge. For one thing, they’re mobile. More likely to change jobs and less likely to be married, have children or own a home, recent graduates have more freedom to move around than older, more settled alumni. This means that you have to be more proactive and vigilant when it comes to keeping track of them.
Advancement staff at George Washington University were worried that many of their younger alumni were not receiving the alumni magazine, event invitations or print annual fund appeals. Their office was getting back a lot of returned mail, and they also noticed that a large percentage of their recent graduates’ home mailing addresses were the same as their parents’. What’s more, a larger than usual percentage of younger alumni weren’t answering when the phonathon called. The advancement staff did, however, have good email records since most students kept the same address after graduating.
To collect better contact information, the advancement team sent a series of emails to recent graduates asking them to confirm or update their home and employment information. Anyone who completed the survey was entered into a drawing for a chance to win an iPad mini (see below). The first email, to all graduates of the past decade, had a response rate of over 20 percent. A follow-up email, sent to all graduates of the past two years, had a 40 percent response rate. By the end of the campaign, the university was able to update information on nearly 70 percent of all survey respondents.
One of Aesop’s great fables is about a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks nearby villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. Time and time again the villagers come to his side only to discover that his cries are just a hoax. In the story’s tragic ending, a real wolf finally does appear. When the boy again asks for help, the villagers ignore him and the sheep are eaten.
Besides the important moral about telling the truth, this story also has a lesson for annual giving professionals: be wary of asking too often. Understanding that donors usually don’t give unless they’re asked, many annual giving programs struggle to figure how frequently they should solicit their prospects.
An aggressive strategy can have an upside. It can keep your institution (and its need for support) top of mind for your constituents. There’s a lot of static and competition out there. The more often you ask, the more likely it is that your appeal will be heard. Being assertive can also produce results. There is, in fact, a correlation between higher appeal frequency and higher participation rates.
However, frequent appeals can also have a downside. The more you ask, the more you risk alienating your prospects. It doesn’t take much for someone to click the unsubscribe link in your email or ask to be taken off your call list. Asking too often also risks desensitizing your constituents to all of your institution’s communications – appeals and otherwise.
The optimal frequency depends on a number of factors including budget, culture and goals. But a strong solicitation strategy considers more than just frequency. It also requires balance in terms of message, method and timing. What, how, and when you ask are just as – if not more – important as how often you ask. You’ll know when you’ve found the right balance for your audience when you start to notice an uptick in your results.
Suggesting gift amounts is a simple but effective way to raise donors’ sights and secure more leadership gifts. One way to do this is by requesting a specific amount in the body of a direct appeal or within a phonathon caller’s script. Although there’s no exact science for determining the right ask amount for each donor, a general rule is that it should be significantly higher than the donor’s most recent gift but also reasonable and realistic based on what you know about the donor’s capacity and inclination. The trick is to do your homework and find an amount that is ambitious but not off-putting.
A similar method is to provide donors with a range of potential gift amounts for them to consider on the reply device. This is known as an ask array or ask ladder. Although it would be a lot of work to create a unique ask ladder for each individual prospect, you can build them for key segments. The idea is that segments containing prospects with higher levels of past giving or known capacity should receive more ambitious ask arrays. In phonathons, ask ladders can be used to guide callers on what gift amounts they should solicit from prospects as a first ask, and in subsequent asks if needed. Again, the trick is to find the right levels: ambitious but not off-putting.
Online giving forms provide an opportunity to combine suggested gift amounts and ask arrays. Harvard Business School’s online giving form includes a range of five specified gift amounts as well as an option to write in the gift amount of the donor’s choice. However, the form has preselected the $250 option, suggesting that $250 is a common (or even minimum) gift from the school’s alumni. This tactic might compel an otherwise $100 donor to think twice about the amount of his or her gift. Almost immediately after updating the form with these higher gift amounts, the Harvard Business School’s advancement team noticed an increase in the average gift size of online donations.
Annual Giving and Alumni Relations are team sports. Unfortunately, there are plenty of things that can get in the way when they try to work together.
Sometimes the obstacles are organizational: the teams have different bosses, report to separate units or are located in different offices or buildings around campus. Other times, the obstacles are strategic: one team viewing its role as separate and distinct from the other’s. For example, the annual giving team might be focused on generating donors and dollars while the alumni relations team is concentrated on planning events, offering career and educational programs, and connecting alumni through online, regional or affinity networks.
Whether they realize it or not, annual giving and alumni relations teams ultimately share one common goal: increasing alumni engagement.
When people see value in an organization they’re more inclined to act when called upon to do so. In the case of educational institutions, alumni who see value in their alma mater (and/or in their association with it) are more likely to attend an event, volunteer, or make a gift. These actions are just a few of the many ways alumni can engage with their alma mater. The reason why alumni engagement is so important is that each of its forms can give way to another. For example, alumni who attend events are more likely to be donors, and alumni who volunteer for their alma mater are more likely to attend an event (and vice versa).
So how do successful annual giving and alumni relations teams work together toward the common goal of increasing alumni engagement? Start by determining how engagement should be measured; then develop a plan to increase it. Consider the following exercise as one approach:
- Pull a random sample of 200 alumni records from your database.
- Assign 1 point to each record when you see evidence of any of the following actions: attending an event, serving as a volunteer, making a donation.
- Sum up the total points for each record and assign an “engagement score” to it between 0 and 3.
- Calculate the median “engagement score” for the entire sample population.
- Establish a common/shared goal for the alumni relations and annual giving teams to increase the median engagement score over a one year period.
- Empower each team to develop strategies that increase the overall alumni engagement score by increasing all of the actions that drive it.
- Pull and re-score another random sample one year later to determine how the score has changed.
- Adjust your strategies based on your results and try it again next year. Good luck!
Measuring the results of your annual giving effort can be daunting. There’s an ocean of metrics out there to help you track the progress of your program and the individual appeals, constituencies and funds that contribute to its success. Sometimes the waters get murky and its not always clear which ones you should focus on.
Reporting becomes particularly important around the end of the fiscal year when others – your boss, your boards, your colleagues – really start paying attention. You need to be able to articulate your progress in a clear and concise way. While it’s tempting to take a deep dive into the details, you should always start with the 5 basics. They are, quite simply, the most important metrics in annual giving.
- Revenue – This is the amount of money raised for your annual fund. Unfortunately there’s no universal definition for it. Some institutions count only unrestricted gifts while others might include all current-use gifts, all gifts up to a certain threshold or gifts received in response to a direct appeal. Before you start throwing out numbers, take a moment to remind your audience how your institution defines annual fund revenue.
- Donors – This is the number of individuals and organizations who make a gift to your institution or to a specific group of funds. There are two categories of donors: those who receive hard credit (also known as legal or tax credit) and those who receive soft credit (also known as recognition credit). While only hard credit is important when tracking revenue, both types of credit should be considered when tracking the number of donors. Be careful not to double count.
- Participation – This is the portion of your constituents who make a gift to your institution in any given year. Think of it as the overall solicitation response rate or what those who work in the private sector call “market share.” For a growing number of educational institutions, alumni participation (calculated as the number of alumni donors divided by the number of living alumni with a good address) is a top priority. The national median for alumni participation is just under 9 percent.
- Retention – This is the percent of donors from the previous year who make a gift in the following year. It’s a barometer of donor satisfaction and says something about the efficiency of your programs. It’s more effective (and less expensive) to renew past donors than it is to acquire new ones. The national median for donor retention rates is around 60 percent.
- Leadership Giving – This is the relatively small number of large gifts that will almost always make up the majority of your annual fund revenue. You should solicit and steward the donors who make these gifts as carefully and personally as possible. They’re also the most likely donors to renew next year. While the threshold for a “leadership gift” is different from one institution to the next, the most common level for educational institutions is $1,000 or more.
These 5 metrics are just the beginning. Sharing them will surely set off a string of questions and require you to take a deeper dive into that ocean of metrics. In some cases, you’ll know the answers right away. In others, you won’t. And that’s okay. Don’t ever feel uncomfortable saying “I’m not sure. I’ll look into it and get back to you.”