There’s a restaurant tucked up in the green hills of Vermont, not far from the New Hampshire border, that gets it right. As soon as you sit down for dinner, you’re greeted – as you would be at almost any other reputable establishment – by a smiling server prepared to take your drink order. But instead of hearing, “What would you like to drink?”, you’ll hear the same question framed in a different way. Here, they ask, “What would you like to enjoy?”
Asking it this way makes all the difference. Rather than focusing simply on the beverage itself, it prompts the guests to imagine themselves sipping that drink and how doing so will make them feel. A margarita might help someone feel festive. A gin and tonic – sophisticated. A glass of wine – relaxed. An iced tea – refreshed. The way a drink makes you feel is much more important than how it looks or even how it tastes.
This same idea can be applied in annual giving. When it comes to soliciting charitable gifts, there is often too much emphasis placed on the monetary aspects of the potential donation. Would you consider a gift of $100 to help us reach our goal? When you take this approach, you’re really just asking for a donation for the sake of a donation.
Instead, try to focus on what that donation will accomplish and how giving a gift will make the donor feel. Will they feel like a leader? Will they feel like they belong to something important? Will they feel like they’re making an impact?
With this in mind, try framing your solicitation a different way: Will you become a leader in our community and make a difference in the life of a needy student with a gift of $100?
Your boss pokes her head into your office doorway and asks how the annual fund is doing. You respond (proudly) that it’s up compared to last year and on track to hit its goal. She nods and gives you a smile to suggest that she’s pleased with the news. But then she throws out another question. This one catches you a little off-guard.
“Do you know why we’re up?” she asks.
There’s an awkward silence for a few seconds, which (to you) feels like a few minutes. You begin to mumble something about higher quality appeals or a better economy or something like that until you stop and, looking embarrassed, admit the truth.
“I don’t know,” you reply.
Little has improved the field of annual giving in recent years more than data and analytics. The ability to harness and mine information empowers programs to identify and understand prospects, deploy resources in efficient and effective ways, and report progress in real time. Better access to data also allows annual giving professionals to pinpoint trends and explain which factors are contributing to their program’s performance.
In this case, start by looking for changes in donors or dollars within the three key donor behavior segments: new donors, retained donors and reactivated donors. Then look for similar changes among key constituencies, fund designations, solicitation channels or gift amount ranges. Recognizing such changes (also known as “gaps” or as “variance”) may provide insight, but is also the first step in addressing shortcomings before it’s too late.
Access to data doesn’t mean that you need to have all of the answers all of the time. You do, however, need to know how to go about finding the answers. So follow up your “I don’t know” with, “But I can find out.”
The term alum refers to any of various double sulfates of a trivalent metal such as aluminum, chromium, or iron and a univalent metal such as potassium or sodium. Alums are useful for a range of industrial, culinary or medical processes.
While it’s understandable that an alum may be quite relevant to a scientist, chef or doctor, it may also be surprising that it’s not particularly useful to those who work in advancement.
On the other hand, an alumnus (male) or alumna (female) is clearly a former student (often a graduate) of a school, college, or university. The term alumnae is used to describe a group of female former students and the term alumni describes a group of male former students or a group of both males and females.
Too often, those who work in annual giving and alumni relations don’t take the time to use these terms (and many other terms) correctly. When that happens, it not only makes you look casual, ill-informed and unprofessional, but it reflects poorly on your institution.
In the same way that the clothes you decide to wear to work each day make a statement, the language you use to communicate with your colleagues, your constituents and your volunteers says a lot about you and your organization.
Keeping this in mind, take time to select the right words and to use them in the proper way. It’s more important than you might think.
In the late 1950’s Oakland businessman Wilfred Winkenbach organized a contest for his friends and colleagues where individuals selected a “team” of professional golfers and tracked their scores over a period of time. When the tournament ended, the team with the best score would win. This was the earliest record of what’s known today as fantasy sports.
Online fantasy sports have exploded in recent years. Players assemble virtual teams of real professional athletes and compete based on the statistical performance of those athletes in actual games. Today there are over 57 million participants, as reported by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Players tend to be younger and better educated, and have higher household incomes than non-players, according the Association. On average, participants spend over $556 each on league-related costs.
Johns Hopkins University has come up with a way to capitalize on the fantasy sports craze, engage volunteers and mobilize alumni to support class programs. It’s called “Fantasy Reunion.”
Led by team captains, alumni organize themselves into affinity-based teams of eleven and then earn points for participating in various activities. The teams that earn the most points between January 15 and April 1 are awarded prizes (e.g., apple watch, event tickets, swag). There is also a prize for the individual with the highest score. Points are awarded for:
- Registering for reunion, with extra points granted for registering early or from out-of-state
- Donating to the reunion class gift campaign
- Providing information about participant interests and affinities
- Communicating with one another
Fantasy Reunion is a great way to engage volunteers online, encourage support for the university and ensure that reunion programs are successful. Click here for more information.
Jonathan Winters once joked, “I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.” Unfortunately, many annual giving professionals aren’t waiting around either. One of the biggest challenges in building strong annual giving teams is staff turnover. Many organizations struggle to retain employees long enough to train them properly, much less to grow them or help them become successful.
One of the most significant factors contributing to turnover has to do with staff expectations for career advancement. According to an AGN survey, the majority of new annual giving professionals expect to be promoted in less than two years. Most organizations are simply not equipped to promote employees this quickly – even those who are performing and producing results at an optimal level.
Expectations for rapid advancement exist amid – and may even contribute to – some level of discontent. In fact, 40 percent of annual giving professionals are not satisfied in their current jobs. 44 percent said they had either searched or interviewed for another job outside of their institution in the past year. 61 percent don’t feel that they’re paid appropriately.
Another factor contributing to the relatively short tenure of annual giving staff may be the number of opportunities available elsewhere. It’s a buyer’s market in many regions, with more job opportunities than there are qualified candidates. It’s hard to convince those who are in the early or middle stages of their careers to turn away from jobs that offer more money and better titles.
An annual giving program is only as good as the people who run it, which is why institutions need to make the retention of (great) staff a high priority. This begins by identifying the most talented employees, listening to their expectations, investing in their development and training, and offering them new challenges and opportunities to gain new skills along the way.
There’s a saying in annual giving that your most important donor is your current donor. Well, the same is true when it comes to employees. The most important members of your team are the ones who came into work this morning. Make it a priority to keep them around until tomorrow.
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 on an annual basis. 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. They need to learn campaign speak.
One way to exercise campaign speak is to remind others what the annual fund represents as a percentage 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, 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 one of your campaign goals is to increase alumni participation from 8 percent to 12 percent, then map out a path for achieving (and sustaining) that rate over a period of years. In addition to defining goals for alumni participation rates in each individual year, you should also specify targets for each of the key drivers of alumni participation, such as alumni of record counts, donor counts and retention rates. The following table not only states where you want to end up, but it also describes how you intend to get there.
Campaign speak will not only help keep your annual giving program top of mind for senior leaders and campaign managers, but it will also help expand your view of your program’s potential growth and impact over a longer period.
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.