The Most Important Characteristic of Effective Annual Giving Leaders

Posted on 08/20/2017 - by Dan Allenby

Teams (and individuals) need different styles of leadership at different times. Sometimes people need their leader to be a coach—to test their abilities and push them to be their best. Other times people need their leader to be a cheerleader—to inspire and motivate them to do better. Sometimes people need a teacher—someone to explain and clarify and show them how to be successful. Then there are times when people need their leader to be a champion and an obstacle-clearer. This is particularly true in annual giving, where the team’s importance can sometimes be overlooked amid the ongoing quest for mega-gifts.

Of all the characteristics that are important in an annual giving leader, one stands out above all others. A survey of over 200 annual giving program directors asked participants to identify the first word that came to mind when hearing the phrase “annual giving leader.” Common responses were clustered and used to create a word cloud; the more frequently a word was mentioned, the larger the font used. As you can see from the figure below, the most common response was strategic.

The concept of strategy describes a plan to achieve a goal over a given period of time and under conditions of uncertainty. Originating from Greek, it was originally used in a military context. For many leadership-level annual giving professionals who battle limited budgets, office politics and disgruntled constituents, this context still rings true today. For them, the importance of strategy—of moving away from managing operations and deploying tactics—is as important as ever.

As chief strategists, leadership-level annual giving professionals are responsible for leading the planning process, establishing goals (and aligning them with the larger institutional goals), and making decisions about where to allocate resources. They need to monitor industry trends and best practices and determine how to adapt and incorporate good ideas. They also need to analyze the results and trends of their own programs and then translate key findings into new and improved approaches. Focusing on strategy means they need to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others, find ways to empower and retain the most talented staff, and address issues of underperformance. Needless to say, strategic leadership takes work.

Ultimately, leadership-level annual giving professionals are the ones responsible for a program’s productivity. They need to be able to identify problems and impediments as well as devise effective solutions to deal with them. Since it’s not always easy or possible to get more resources or change people’s expectations, leaders face the challenge of getting the most out of the resources they already have. At the same time, they need to be able to “manage up”— to help senior advancement leaders understand the capabilities and limits of the annual giving program.

Above all, being a strategic annual giving leader requires focusing a significant amount of time and attention on those things that will have the biggest impact on fundraising as well as participation. This means working closely with advancement colleagues—especially those in major gifts and alumni relations—as well as other colleagues across campus, including deans, faculty and other senior administrators. It also means being proactive in thinking about the role, the potential, and the expectations of the annual fund in the context of broader advancement initiatives—something that’s increasingly important as more and more educational institutions find themselves going into, coming out of, or in the middle of comprehensive fundraising campaigns.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Developing an Annual Fund Plan.


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5 Tactics For Boosting Phonathon Contact Rates

Posted on 08/13/2017 - by Dan Allenby

Running a phonathon program isn’t cheap. Recruiting and training a staff of quality callers (not to mention maintaining the hardware and software in your call center) requires a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money. Fortunately, phonathons have a lot of benefits. They have higher conversion rates than direct mail and email appeals, they’re an effective way to acquire new donors and upgrade current donors, and they’re the most efficient way to engage a lot of prospects in a personal way. But you can’t take advantage of any of these if your prospects don’t pick up the phone.

Here are five ways to boost your phonathon’s contact rates and ensure that your callers talk to as many prospects as possible.


  1. Give them a heads up – Let prospects know you’ll be calling with some advance notice. Mail them a pre-call post card, send them a pre-call email, or even run a targeted pre-call ad on your facebook page.
  2. Target “phone-friendly” prospects – Don’t spend too much time calling people who have only responded to direct mail or email appeals in the past. Focus first on prospects who have responded to your phone calls in the past. For non-donor segments, try to identify those who share characteristics with your past phonathon responders.
  3. Let tired lists rest – Keep your lists as fresh as possible. Avoid calling the same prospects over and over when they don’t answer. Give segments a break after you’ve attempted them 3 or 4 times within a period of a couple weeks. After that, you can try putting them back in the calling pool.
  4. Mobilize – As the landline phone makes its way onto the endangered species list, it’s increasingly important to maintain good mobile phone numbers on all of your prospects. Create incentives for prospects to provide you with their mobile phone numbers and consider investing in mobile phone append services.
  5. Leave messages – Don’t assume that just because someone doesn’t answer your call, they don’t see you calling. It’s very possible that they’re screening your calls because they don’t know who you are or why you’re calling. Leaving a voicemail can actually increase the likelihood that they’ll answer the next time you try. This is especially true for young alumni and parents.

Increasing your contact rates is key if you expect to raise more money and secure more donors through your phonathon. Remember, if you don’t hear “hello,” they’ll be nothing to show.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Maximizing Your Phonathon.

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3 Reasons To Always Write A Contact Report

Posted on 08/06/2017 - by Dan Allenby

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Maybe. Maybe not. Now, if you have a great meeting with a prospect and you forget to log a contact report, does it really matter? Absolutely.

A contact report is a written summary of a development officer’s interaction with prospect. It records the time and purpose of the meeting and highlights important information that came out of the meeting. Too often, however, development officers don’t take take the time to write contact reports after meeting with a donor, which can end up being a big loss for the organization. Here are 3 reasons that you should always write a contact report:

First, they provide an easy way to share intelligence with others who work with or on behalf of the prospect. It’s a much more efficient method of communicating a lot of information to a lot of people than having to rely on additional meetings or conversations. Distributing contact reports to colleagues is a good and common practice. It can be as simple as sending an email.

Second, the mere act of writing a contact report forces you to reflect back on your meeting and determine what was and what wasn’t important about it. A good contact report is concise and only includes information that is relevant as it relates to advancing a prospect’s relationship with the institution. A contact report should not tell the reader what color tie the prospect was wearing, that his sister’s husband’s cousin just got a speeding ticket, or that the waiter spilled orange juice on your lap. It should, however, tell you how he feels about the direction of the institution, what campus events he recently attended, or which professor the prospect liked best when he was in school. It’s also beneficial to include other details that, while maybe not directly related to your institution, help to paint a picture of the person, like their political views or other philanthropic causes they support.

Third and finally, contact reports are good for posterity. Staff comes and goes (some stay longer than others) but a prospect’s relationship with an institution can often last a lifetime. Contact reports can not only help new staff when they need to get up to speed quickly and learn about the prospects they’re going to be responsible for cultivating, but they can help experienced staff recall important details and past events. They also provide a useful point of reference when thinking about how to best engage a prospect going forward.

The best time to write a contact report is as soon as possible while the details of the meeting are still fresh in your head. Don’t get caught up thinking it has to be long or elaborate. In fact, short and sweet is usually best. It’s not a novel; it’s the cliff notes. At a minimum, though, it should include:

  • Your name
  • Prospect’s name and their relationship to the institution (e.g. alumnus from Class 1994)
  • Prospect’s estimated wealth, giving patterns, gift capacity, and inclination rating
  • Date, time and location of the meeting
  • Other participants (e.g. spouse, dean)
  • Summary of the meeting (no more than 5 sentences)
  • Key outcomes from the meeting (in bullet form)
  • List of next steps and your goals for cultivating and soliciting the prospect in the future
  • Other items of note (this is where the extra details go)

Unfortunately, writing a contact report is easily (and frequently) put off. But the longer you wait, the more likely it is that it will never get done. When a contact report goes unwritten, a lot can get lost. Colleagues may not get clued in, you may not have a chance to process the meeting thoroughly, and future generations may never know about those things that you worked so hard to uncover. Sometimes, when a contact report goes unwritten, it’s as if the meeting never happened at all.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Meeting with Donors & Prospects.

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Creating Annual Fund Impact Reports

Posted on 07/30/2017 - by Dan Allenby

Ask someone to explain the role of stewardship in annual giving and they might tell you about the acknowledgment letters they produce, the donor rosters they publish, and the plaques that hang in their institution’s hallways. While these are all important aspects of stewardship, they’re secondary to the task to showing donors how their gifts have made a difference.

One of the challenges in annual giving, however, is that you can’t always tell a donor exactly how their donation was spent. While major gifts typically go to support a very specific need, annual gifts are often pooled together and distributed where an institution’s leadership thinks support is needed most. But even though you can’t show a $50 annual fund donor exactly how that money was used, you can help them to understand the kind of collective impact that results from annual giving. Telling stories can, even in a general way, let annual donors know that their past gifts are making a difference.

Recognizing the importance of this, Boston College’s annual giving program produces impact reports. These online reports are filled with pictures, videos, and stories about the impact of annual giving on the lives of students and faculty. Donors are sent emails letting them know that the reports are available.

Donors also receive quarterly impact report emails, which come from an individual student or faculty member who has benefited directly from annual giving. They include compelling stories and specific examples of how donor support has made a difference in their lives. The impact reports and emails are coordinated as part of the university’s donor loyalty program known as The Neenan Society, since both are considered a core element of the annual fund’s stewardship and donor retention efforts.

In the first year after launching their impact reports, Boston College saw an increase in their donor retention rate. But that’s not the only way they knew their efforts were effective. The annual fund staff also received heartfelt emails back from donors telling them how much they enjoyed received the reports.

There’s a saying in advancement: It’s not about the money. It’s about what the money does that matters most. That is especially true in annual giving. So, make a point of talking to your institution’s students and faculty as well as others in your community who are the beneficiaries of annual support. Listen to their stories, collect them, and (most importantly) share them with the donors who made those stories possible.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Stewardship for Annual Fund Donors.

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Grad Fair Days for Senior Class Giving

Posted on 07/23/2017 - by Dan Allenby

Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland found that babies can learn a lot before they’re even born. Their study examined two groups of mothers-to-be, half of whom were exposed to loud recordings of made-up words in their final months of pregnancy. After birth, the babies who had heard the recordings in utero recognized the made-up words; the other group of babies did not. The researchers could tell because brain activity in the exposed babies increased when those words were played, whereas babies who didn’t hear the recordings in the womb did not react as much.

A student’s final semester is like the final weeks of a baby’s time in utero. During this period of great growth and change, students prepare to enter the real world. It’s a time filled with excitement and uncertainty. Many students face the tasks of searching for a job and considering what it’s going to be like to pay rent on their own for the first time. The experiences that students have and the information they take in during their senior year will have a lasting impression on their lives as alumni.

Many institutions see the commencement ceremony itself as an opportunity to tell students what life will be like as alumni and what they can expect once they graduate. Letting students know that they are about to become part of a meaningful and active alumni community, that belonging to this community has value, and that resources are available through the institution that can help them grow personally and professionally can have a significant impact on them.

At the same time, many graduating students will look to their school to help them navigate through what can be an overwhelming time. The weeks leading up to graduation can be particularly hectic. Aside from all the questions (and anxieties) that arise about life after graduation, many students are cramming for final exams, saying farewell to good friends, and preparing for the commencement celebration.

Lehigh University found a way to make life easier for seniors while making sure important messages get delivered and tasks get completed. Through a cross-campus partnership with the alumni association, career services, and the bookstore, the annual giving team developed a program to help students get ready for graduation and to prepare them for their lives as alumni. They call it Grad Fair Days.

When seniors come to the university bookstore, they are greeted by a representative who helps them get fitted for their caps and gowns, look at class rings and shop for diploma frames. But the representative can also talk knowledgeably about what to expect when they become alumni.

Students learn about the opportunities and benefits available through the alumni association, resources they can access through career services, and the significance of supporting the annual fund. Then, after a brief consultation, students are escorted to a bank of laptop computers and guided through a five-step process of verifying their contact information, completing a career services survey, creating their alumni network account, submitting their cap and gown order, and visiting the web page for the senior class gift.

The process not only aids students in checking off a lot of important tasks on their list, but it does so in an efficient way that helps to alleviate some of their anxiety. Making it a seamless process requires a lot of interdepartmental collaboration on the institution’s part because there are so many tasks to coordinate (e.g., floor layout, staffing, regalia, computer setup and support). But the teamwork pays off. In the first year alone, the university saw an increase in the number of completed career services surveys, new alumni network accounts, and senior class gifts.

When students hear and see that their school is there not just to prepare them for life as adults but also to provide continued help and support throughout the remainder of their personal and professional lives, it makes the bond with their alma mater stronger. The role of the nurturing mother doesn’t end when students are handed a diploma. The truth is, from the standpoint of an annual giving or advancement professional, that’s really where the work begins.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Transitioning Students to Young Alumni Donors.

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The Best Advice You’ll Ever Ask For

Posted on 07/16/2017 - by Dan Allenby

There’s an old adage in fundraising that goes like this: If you ask someone for money, they’ll probably respond with advice. But, if you ask for advice, don’t be surprised if they end up giving you money.

If you work in annual giving, then you’ve heard it before: The only time I hear from my alma mater is when they need money! While it’s easy to see how some alumni could feel this way, the truth is that soliciting donations is an important responsibility of any annual giving program. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not asking enough.

The most successful programs certainly aren’t shy about asking. They appeal to alumni for donations on a regular (sometimes monthly!) basis, and they don’t necessarily stop asking after someone makes a gift. Many will follow up with a second appeal shortly after. Research shows that the more frequently a donor is asked – and subsequently gives – the more likely they will be to give again in the future. But don’t confuse this to mean that institutions should only ask for money.

Stanford University’s annual giving team knows that engaging alumni and donors involves more than just gift solicitations, which is why they created a mail piece that specifically asks alumni for their advice. With a headline that reads, “Whether you graduated five or 55 years ago (who’s counting?), you probably have some very useful advice for today’s undergraduates,” the piece includes a reply card so alumni can respond with their opinions about the best place to study on campus, whether or not “fountain hopping” is a good idea, and other suggestions that might be helpful to current students.

The mailing, which was sent in early May, was done as a test alongside a “bio update” mailing that is typically sent around the same time each year. The goal was to mimic the experience of filling something out and sending a gift. An email, which included a link to a digital survey, was sent a few weeks later as a follow-up to the print mail piece. Although it was not intended to come across as a gift solicitation, the mailing did include a subtle plug for financial support at the bottom of the page. See below for an example of the printed piece.

Good engagement and fundraising strategies involve a lot of asking. But don’t be too narrow in what you’re asking for. Gifts come in many sizes – time, talent and treasure. When a donor is willing to give any one of these things, it’s important to take notice. And when you find someone who cares enough about the institution to give all three, then you’ve found something that’s not only rare but truly special.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Stewardship for Annual Fund Donors.

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Using Central Tendency To Assess Results

Posted on 07/09/2017 - by Dan Allenby

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that “those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Indeed, what you see is always relative to what surrounds it. At no time is this more important to keep in mind than when analyzing the performance of your programs.

Just about anybody can click a button to run a standard report, look over a spreadsheet, or recite how many donors came in as the result of the last appeal. But don’t confuse these actions alone with being analytical. Observing the data is an important first step in analyzing your efforts, but the next step is interpreting the data. This means figuring out what stories the data have to tell.

Interpreting data requires context. Rather than looking at metrics in a vacuum, you need to compare them to something. For example, if someone asks how your alumni participation efforts are going and you reply that your alumni participation rate is 12 percent, that doesn’t provide any context. Is 12 percent good? If so, how good, and what evidence do you have to support this claim? By itself, 12 percent is just a number; but comparing that number to something else gives it context and makes it relevant.

One of the simplest and most useful ways to give context to your metrics is to compare them to one of the three measures of central tendency: the mean, the median, and the mode.

The mean (also known as the average) is the most common measure of central tendency. It’s the sum of every number in a data set divided by the total number of data points. For example, if your annual fund raised $1 million last year from 10,000 donors, then the average gift per donor would be $100 ($1,000,000/10,000 = $100). However, the mean can be skewed by outlier gifts. For example, if one of those 10,000 donors made a single donation of $500,000, it would inflate the mean. Without that one donation included in the calculation, the figure would be only $50, so it’s important to remember that the mean does not necessarily give an accurate representation of the typical donor’s gift.

The median is the middle value when the numbers in a data set are arranged in ascending or descending order. If the number of values in a data set is even, then the median is the mean of the two middle numbers. For example, imagine that your phonathon received five gifts last night in the amounts of $60, $75, $100, $125 and $500. In this case, the median gift would be $100, since it is in the middle when you sort the gift amounts from lowest to highest. This is significantly lower than the mean gift of $172. Since outlier gifts can be common in annual giving (remember the Pareto principle), the median can be a good way to measure central tendency and paint a more accurate picture of a typical giving pattern.

The mode is the value that occurs most frequently in a data set. For example, if your program received five gifts in response to an email appeal in the amounts of $25, $25, $25, $500, and $1,000, then the modal gift would be $25, because it occurred more often than any other gift amount. Understanding where a distribution of gifts tends to cluster can be helpful when assessing the messages and ask amounts that go into your appeals or reside on your online giving forms.

These three measures of central tendency offer annual giving professionals a variety of tools to evaluate the performance of their appeals and programs. By providing context to your results, each of these tools can help you understand how an individual metric compares to the greater population and where it falls within the overall range of outcomes. Ultimately, this will let you know whether you can celebrate your success, or if it’s time for your team to head back to the drawing board.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Fundamentals of Data-Driven Annual Giving.

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Posted on 07/02/2017 - by Dan Allenby

StopThe 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.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Planning Your Direct Appeal Calendar.

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5 Ways To Improve Subject Lines for Email Appeals

Posted on 06/25/2017 - by Dan Allenby

In direct mail fundraising, an envelope has two jobs. The first is to get delivered to the right mailbox. The second is to get opened. You can say that the envelope is the battleground for an annual fund’s print appeals. Getting someone to open it gets you one step “closer to the castle” of getting them to make a donation. Similarly, getting someone to answer a phonathon call or getting someone to take a meeting with a gift officer is a key step in ultimately getting someone to make a donation.

In email, the battleground is the subject line. It’s the first (and quite possibly the only) thing that a prospect will see, which is why it’s so important to choose your words carefully. Keep in mind that your donors are likely getting dozens – if not hundreds – of other emails each day, so you need to make sure your subject lines stand out, get noticed, and resonate.

Here are five ways to create more effective subject lines and ultimately get your prospects to open your email appeals.

  1. Grab attention – Be concise and direct. Pull them in and make them want to read more. Try to make it read like a newspaper headline.
  2. Generate curiosity – Ask questions like “Is your name on this list?” or try numbered phrases “6 reasons you should donate today.”
  3. Make it relevant – The point is not to trick someone into opening your email. The point is to get those who will be interested in what’s inside to open it. It’s better to have a lower open rate and a higher click-through or conversion rate than the other way around. If you have a video to share, preview that with a subject line like “Watch this video!”
  4. Create urgency – Use deadlines. Let them know if “Time is running out” or if it’s their “Last chance” to get their gift matched. Year-ends and challenges provide natural opportunities to create a sense of urgency.
  5. Beware of spam filters – Certain phrases or characters can cause your emails to get flagged as mass emails and automatically dumped in “junk” or “spam” folders where it’s likely your alumni will never even see them. To avoid this, try not to use words like “free” or “exclusive” in your subject line and shy away from using special characters or capital letters. If it looks or sounds like something a sleazy salesperson might say, there’s a good chance it’ll end up in a spam filter.

Don’t underestimate the importance of compelling subject lines for your email appeals. And don’t try to figure out the right one all alone. In fact, come up with a few options and share them with others for their feedback. This might take a little extra time, but it’ll be worth the effort. Remember, the subject line is the battleground in email fundraising. Anytime a prospect opens your email appeal, your chances of victory (i.e., securing a donation) go way up.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Email Strategy for Annual Giving. 

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You Are Perfect

Posted on 06/18/2017 - by Dan Allenby

Donor retention rates measure the portion of prior year donors who give again in the following year. For example, if there were 100 donors to your institution two years ago and 65 of those same donors made a gift again last year, then your program’s alumni donor retention rate for last year would be 65 percent.

In fact, for competitive colleges and universities, a typical alumni donor retention rate is around 65 percent. For high performing annual giving programs, alumni donor retention rates can be as high as 80 percent. However, for the majority of college and university annual giving programs across the U.S., alumni donor retention rates are usually closer to 50 percent.

In the case of new donors (i.e., those who made their first gift in the prior year), retention rates are typically much lower. For most programs, this will often be below 20 percent. In the case of recent graduates, who made their first gift as part of their senior class gift campaign, it’s not unusual for retention rates to be below 10 percent.

To reduce this kind of attrition and to highlight the importance of ongoing support by new alumni, the Penn Fund launched its “You Are Perfect” campaign. It started several years ago as a fiscal year-end postcard sent to all first-year alumni who had donated to their senior class gift campaign in the prior year. The message was simple: You Are Perfect. Don’t Change!

The initial mailing generated a 14 percent response rate and accounted for one-quarter of all giving from the class. In recognition for their gifts, donors received personal acknowledgment letters and were listed as “perfect donors” in the university’s donor roster publication. In the following year, they rolled it out to all graduates of the past four years with perfect giving records. It generated a 16 percent response rate and accounted for 10 percent of giving by pre-5th reunion classes.

Encouraging consistent giving (regardless of the gift amount) by recent graduates not only helps to increase retention rates each year, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to boost your alumni participation rates over the long term.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Transitioning Students to Young Alumni Donors.

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