Coordinating Annual Giving in Complex Organizations

Posted on 06/24/2018 - by Dan Allenby

Coordinating annual giving efforts in complex organizations, especially those that are large and decentralized, can be a challenge. In such environments, different units often operate as completely separate entities with their own constituents, goals, and cultures even though they’re all part of one umbrella institution. For those who work in the central annual giving department, the day-to-day tasks of getting appeals out the door while offering valuable support to the various units might feel a bit like herding cats.

A quintessential example of a successful central effort within a complex and decentralized organization can be found at Cambridge in America. Known as CAm, this US-based nonprofit is responsible for coordinating fundraising and alumni relations in the US for the 800-year-old University of Cambridge and its thirty-one member Colleges “across the pond” in England. Each College is an autonomous entity across which more than 18,000 students live, work, and study, all spidered throughout the ancient city of Cambridge, England. Each one has its own development office and director, with staffs ranging from 2–12 dedicated full-time employees. Along with their own histories and ways of doing things, these Colleges have their own fundraising needs and goals and have established their own internal procedures to meet them.

But even the most prestigious institutions must deal with time and change. In recent years, the need for fundraising has increased in order to support research, posts, and facilities and to help meet the increased shift of tuition and other costs to students. Until the late 1990s, tuition and fees had primarily been the purview of the government; since then, however, they have been steadily rising to a current price of £9,250 per year per undergraduate student. To help generate private support and offset these increasing expenses, the University undertook a £2 billion Dear World, Yours Cambridge capital campaign.

In aid of annual appeal efforts in the US, Joseph McDonald, CAm’s Director of Communications, Marketing, and Appeals, reached out to College development teams. He worked with each team to learn about their unique organization, challenges, and culture. He asked them what had worked for them in the past and what success looked like for them going forward. Together they assessed various pain points while searching for commonalities and exploring new ideas.

McDonald worked to develop a centralized communications model at CAm for US-based prospects so that the great value of these diverse strategies, schedules, and efforts could be coordinated and optimized. CAm was able to view the various fundraising efforts of the University and Colleges in aggregate for this vital segment of the alumni base. They could see what worked and what didn’t, make recommendations, and then share results and ideas back with other units. The various partners gained knowledge on both individual and collective best practices while each one developed a fundraising program best suited to its needs in the US.

In just a few years, this approach contributed to better fundraising results from US alumni and friends across the board, with the number of donors and dollars under $10,000 increasing by 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively. While annual giving in complex, decentralized institutions can undoubtedly be challenging, CAm’s approach of cross-pollinating “best of” strategies, ideas, and efforts across Colleges has provided notable success.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Strong Teams and Collaborations.

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Using Teasers to Increase Appeal Response Rates

Posted on 06/17/2018 - by Dan Allenby

There’s an old saying in direct mail: “An envelope has two jobs. The first is to get delivered to the right mailbox. The second is to get opened.” Getting prospects to open the envelope is a key step in having them read what’s inside and, ultimately, make a contribution.

The best way to get your alumni to notice (and want to open) the envelope is to capture their attention and make them curious. One way to do this is to use envelopes that stand out because they are unusual in size, shape or color or because they are creative or eye-catching in some other way. Using standard #10 envelopes for mailings may be easy and cost-efficient, but doing so also increases the risk that your appeal will be overlooked.

Another way to increase the chances that your envelope gets noticed is to use teasers (i.e., short eye-catching messages or images) that lure alumni to look inside. A good place for teasers is between the recipient’s name and address (usually in the middle of the envelope) and the return address (usually in the top left corner of the envelope). These are the first two places people’s eyes go when they look at an envelope, and your message will stand out when their eyes move from one to the other.

A teaser should try to tap into the prospect’s emotions, regardless of its placement. For example, “Find out why your gift could help our rankings!” might evoke a sense of pride or connection. “Is your name on this list?” could make recipients curious (and possibly concerned) that they might be left out of something if they don’t act. Don’t be afraid to try humor now and then. The University of California, San Diego used a teaser that read, “OPEN ME. Seriously, I can’t open myself. I don’t have hands because I’m an envelope.”

No matter how compelling your enclosed appeal is, if it goes straight from the mailbox to the recycling bin, the envelope has not performed its job – and you’ve missed the opportunity to engage the recipient and obtain a donation. At the end of the day, when your prospect is flipping through a stack of junk mail, a funny or intriguing teaser might just make the difference.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Rethinking Direct Mail Appeals.

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5 Elements of an Effective Annual Fund Plan

Posted on 06/10/2018 - by Dan Allenby

Earth is approximately 93 million miles from the Sun. It’s in constant motion, traveling 67,000 miles per hour along a 584-million-mile path known as its orbit. As it moves through space, the planet also spins around a tilted axis. Because of this tilt, different parts of Earth point toward the Sun at different times, changing the amount of light and warmth it receives and causing seasons to change every few months in some areas. It completes its orbit every 365 days—one full year.

An annual giving program is also in constant motion. 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 that has yet to connect with your institution. There’s always a series of reports to run, donors to remind about pledges, and volunteers to support. As soon as one fiscal year ends, the next one begins.

The cyclical nature of annual giving is often an attractive characteristic to those who work in the field. Unlike major gift fundraising, which tends to operate over a longer, less-defined period of time, the annual giving cycle resets every 365 days. There are clear starting points and clear ending points—and a lot of work to do in between. For that reason, developing a plan for each fiscal year becomes a necessity. When structuring your plan, be sure to include these 5 elements:

  1. Executive Summary. This should be a brief narrative (no more than one page) that includes bullets to call out the most relevant points. Make it the first thing people see when they open the document. It should explain the current situation and address important challenges and key strategic questions. How has the program performed over the past few years? What trends stand out within your own program or across the industry in general? Are you in a campaign? What are your biggest strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? How are the institutional environment and the economy? Have there been any significant leadership or staff transitions recently? Don’t just answer these questions but explain what they mean for the annual giving
    program going forward.
  2. Projections. Describe how you will measure success at the end of the year. Overarching goals are important (e.g., “increase alumni participation by 1 percent”), but it’s also important to have goals for specific programs (e.g., phonathon, direct mail, online giving), constituencies (e.g., young alumni, students, reunion classes), and donor segments (retention, reactivation, renewal, leadership).
  3. Budget. Specify how you will allocate your resources, identify any financial shortfalls and note where you would spend additional funds if you had them. Make sure your spending aligns with your priorities. For example, if alumni participation is a priority and email has been generating an increasing number of alumni donors each year, make sure you’re allocating a larger portion of your budget to support email. Address short-term needs (e.g., increasing participation, generating revenue) and long-terms needs (e.g., staff retention, professional development). Leave a cushion for any unexpected needs that arise.
  4. Calendars. Provide a timeline for your appeals, events, and other important activities. It’s sufficient to include a summary calendar in the body of the planning document that provides and highlights key dates. Detailed production calendars are also important; however, they may be best included in the appendix. 
  5. Appendix. This is the place to include any additional information or detail needed to support your strategy that would clutter the body of the planning document. It might include detailed production timelines, organizational charts, job descriptions for staff or volunteers, or samples of collateral from other programs that you wish to emulate. If you’re not sure where it belongs or if it’s too specific to include in other areas, then it is probably a good idea to put it in the appendix.

Having a well-structured planning document will not only ensure that everyone is on the same page at the beginning of the year, it also gives you something to reference throughout the year and after the books have closed. This will help with accountability and will also provide a good starting point when it comes time to draft next year’s plan. And that will be here before you know it.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Designing a Winning Annual Fund Plan.

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Asking Lapsed Donors “Why”?

Posted on 06/03/2018 - by Dan Allenby

SYBUNT is an acronym that stands for “Some Year But Unfortunately Not This.” It’s commonly used in annual giving to describe someone who has given at some point in the past, but has not given in the current or most recent fiscal year. The term that’s often used to describe when a donor skips a year of giving is lapsing.

There are numerous reasons why a donor might lapse. Did they have a bad experience the last time they made a gift? Could they have moved and you haven’t been able to update their new address? Was their last donation inspired by a challenge, a class reunion, or some token incentive that got them excited – but only for a moment? Did they just forget?

Understanding why someone lapsed can be an important step to winning them back. With this in mind, the University of Houston conducted a survey of their SYBUNTs (see example below). In it, they asked these lapsed donors:

  • Why haven’t you given recently?
  • What motivated you to give in the past?
  • What would increase the likelihood that you’ll give in the future?
  • How could our annual giving program improve our efforts?

To encourage responses, all participants were offered personalized return address labels. Within a few months, the survey received over 400 replies. The data was used to inform UH’s donor reactivation strategies and think about shortcomings in their donor stewardship efforts. And data wasn’t the only benefit of the survey. Many donors used it as a chance to update their personal and employment information. Others used it as an opportunity to renew their gift, with over 250 participants sending back donations after taking the survey.

Among the most common comments from UH’s survey was that people wanted the university to do a better job of explaining how their gifts were used. Once you know some of the reasons why your SYBUNTS have lapsed, you can execute a plan to more successfully steward them and increase reactivation and ongoing renewal rates.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Reactivating Lapsed Donors.

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Soliciting Blended Gifts

Posted on 05/27/2018 - by Dan Allenby

Many people think that soliciting a donor for a major gift is bad news for the annual fund. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, when properly planned and coordinated, major gift solicitations can be very beneficial for an annual fund.

At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the dual ask or blended gift (i.e., including both a major gift and annual gift) has long been a regular part of their strategy. Laura Tepper, Director of Development, notes that there are several things that help to make their approach successful.

The first is to communicate often and openly. At Penn Law, the development staff is relatively small, so there is a great deal of regular contact among the annual giving staff and the major gift staff. But even in larger offices, regularly touching base with team members is crucial for succeeding with blended gifts.

Not only should annual gift and major gift staff talk to each other and share information about prospects and conversations, but they should also regularly update call reports in their digital systems so that anyone in the office can keep track of donor progress. Penn Law’s development staff holds joint meetings with representatives from both major gifts and annual giving to make sure everyone is on the same page and discuss why a particular donor should give to both the annual fund and the major gift fund.

Tepper says it’s also important to frame the “proper pitch.” When Penn Law’s development staff has agreed that a certain donor would be a good prospect for a dual ask, the team works together to determine the best way to approach that donor. For instance, in some cases, an annual gift staffer may have a long relationship with this person, so the annual gift staffer may be the best one to make the ask, even though it includes a request for a major gift.

Sometimes, Penn Law development professionals hold joint meetings with a donor, in which both annual and major gift staff are present. Development leaders have learned that the most important thing is to do whatever will make the donor feel comfortable and informed.

In addition to setting up the meeting with the right personnel, Penn Law development staffers take time to determine how they will frame a dual ask. For instance, they make sure the prospect understands that maintaining annual giving every year is important. The annual fund relies upon the consistency of its givers and for most schools, annual giving is the funding that fills the gaps. At Penn Law, the annual fund fills gaps for financial aid, and in many cases, a grant from the annual fund is what it takes to get that superstar student.

Often, a major gift donor is a consistent donor to annual giving, so to lose that regular annual gift would be difficult. To avoid that situation, Penn Law development professionals relay to the prospect that a major gift is their opportunity for a lasting legacy at the school that will have an impact every year—but continuing their annual gift will help sustain the law school and make an immediate impact.

One technique that can be effective at securing a blended gift is known as early activation. Typically, newly endowed scholarships or professorships don’t start “paying out” until they are fully funded. In other words, the beneficiaries of those funds (usually a student or faculty member) do not receive any funds until the pledge has been paid in full. In these situations, try talking with the donor about making an additional multi-year pledge to support current-use scholarships through the annual fund on top of their pledge to create an endowment, where the amount of the additional commitment is equal to the estimated payout of the endowment.

For example: A regular $5k annual fund donor decides to make a major gift in the form of a pledge of $100k to endow a new scholarship in their name. The donor agrees to pay $20k per year for 5 years; however, institutional policy stipulates that the fund will not be “active” until the end of the 5-year period. So the donor agrees to make an additional 5-year pledge of $5k per year to the annual fund in the form of a “term scholarship.” The total pledge becomes $125,000 (a 25% increase from the original pledge) and a student begins to benefit from the donor’s support right away, rather than having to wait 5 years.

Early activation blended gifts have many benefits to both the donor and the institution. First and foremost, the donor’s intentions and impact are realized right away rather than waiting until the pledge is paid off. At the same time, the institution receives a larger overall commitment and uninterrupted support for the annual fund. Be advised that each institution’s gift policies are different, so it’s important to check with your finance department first.

When donors understand the importance of both gifts and how they have a separate but equally significant impact on the school, they are often receptive. And when they are, development staff don’t neglect stewardship. When they achieve a blended gift, staff members from both annual giving and major gifts always thank the donor—even if they weren’t both in on the ask.

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

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Donor Coverage Ratios

Posted on 05/20/2018 - by Dan Allenby

There’s an ever-present grind to annual giving. Each year, programs are expected to generate as many – if not more – donors than they did the year before. This is an especially big challenge for educational institutions who are faced with increasing competition from other non-profits and changing attitudes among alumni regarding giving back to their alma mater.

One of the things that can help annual giving programs face this challenge is having a goal and breaking it down into a few smaller parts. In the case of donor counts, this can be accomplished by analyzing what’s known as the donor coverage ratio. Simply put, this is the number of new and reactivated donors you secured compared to those lost through attrition. Here’s an example:

Assume that two years ago your program generated a total of 1,000 donors. Then assume that 600 of those donors renewed last year. In other words, you lost 400 donors. At the same time, you had to replace those lost donors. There are only two ways to do this. The first is to acquire new donors. The second is to reactivate lapsed donors. Figure that last year you acquired 200 new donors and reactivated 200 lapsed donors.

In this case, the donor coverage ratio for last year is 100%, meaning that your program secured exactly the right amount of new and reactivated donors to cover what you lost in attrition. It also means that there was no change in overall donor counts from one year to the next. Had the ratio been less than 100%, it would have meant that the year resulted in an overall decrease in donors. Had it been higher than 100%, it would have meant that there was growth in donors counts from the previous year.

The donor coverage ratio can also help you assess the efficiency of your efforts. Typically, acquiring new donors and reactivating lapsed donors is less efficient and requires more resources than retaining current or recent donors. By increasing your retention rates through targeted outreach and ongoing stewardship, you can also drive up your donor coverage ratio, even if your acquisition and reactivation results remain flat. High donor coverage ratios can be an indicator of higher efficiency.

The grind of increasing donor counts year after year is never easy, but setting a clear goal and determining a path for achieving that goal can be a big help. Get to know how your program has performed in the past. Then use that information to make sure it’s productive and efficient going forward.

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

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Selecting a Date for Your Giving Day

Posted on 05/13/2018 - by Dan Allenby

Several years ago, many in the world of annual giving were asking themselves whether or not their institution should try out a “Giving Day.” Fast forward to the present time and we see that 3 out of 4 colleges, universities and independent schools have held (or are planning to hold) one. So, the new question that many organizations are now asking themselves isn’t if, but when, they should hold the big day.

Back in 2012 when Columbia University celebrated the industry’s first major day of giving, one of their motives was to encourage donors who might typically give in the spring to make their gifts earlier in the fiscal year. For this reason, they decided to hold their giving day in October, and they have continued that tradition every year since.

By any standard, Rice University has made the most of the giving days that they’ve conducted each year since 2013. However, unlike Columbia and many other institutions that hold their event on or around the same date each year, Rice has experimented with different times in order to piggyback on various campus activities and keep donors on their toes. Here’s the approach Rice has taken over the past five years, with results for each year listed in the chart below:

  • First year (2013) — May 10th: Coincided with the celebration of the conclusion of their comprehensive Centennial Campaign, as well as with commencement.
  • Second year (2014) — May 1st: Coincided with “decision day” — when prospective students decide if they will attend Rice.
  • Third year (2015) — June 16th: A little later in the fiscal year, to motivate donors to give during the fiscal year-end push.
  • Fourth year (2016) — February 29th (Leap Day): To have some fun with marketing around the unique date.
  • Fifth year (2017) — June 1st: Based on their success two years before, once again hoping it would give a boost to their fiscal year-end fundraising efforts.

Emily Kernan, Executive Director of the Rice Annual Fund, says that they didn’t want to train their supporters to contribute at the same time each year or wait until the spring to make gifts. They still wanted donors to respond to their fall appeals and hoped that the spring giving day effort — known as the “24-Hour Challenge” — would help to inspire second gifts or encourage those who had not yet given.

When choosing a date for a giving day, Kernan acknowledges that there is no universal “best time,” and encourages people to think carefully about the unique history and culture of needs of their individual institution. She recommends that programs test different dates until they know which time period works best for them. She also reminds program managers that the success of a giving day effort needs to be judged by more than just a fundraising bump on one day. The ultimate goal is to see the momentum from the campaign continue long after the single day ends.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Planning a Successful Giving Day.

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Special Report: 10 Drivers of Annual Giving Success

Posted on 05/06/2018 - by Dan Allenby

The modern annual giving program faces many challenges. A twenty-year decline in alumni participation rates has been fueled by rising tuition and student debt, changing attitudes by a new generation of alumni, and increased competition from a growing number of nonprofits. Limited resources and high rates of staff turnover make the job of running a productive annual giving program even more difficult.

At the same time, new opportunities are presenting themselves every day – through technology, digital media, and data analytics – that can help staff and volunteers achieve their goals. Today, annual giving is more complex, more sophisticated, and more important than ever.

AGN’s Spring 2018 Special Report has been developed as part of our ongoing best practices research. It contains a summary of key findings from our recent survey of more than 300 educational institutions and reveals 10 Drivers of Success as observed from the nation’s highest performing annual giving programs. Use it as a roadmap to improve the quality and productivity of your fundraising efforts and better understand what’s happening in the industry.

As the world’s leading resource and consulting firm for annual giving programs, AGN is dedicated to helping educational and nonprofit organizations improve their annual giving efforts. Through our membership program and specialized annual giving consulting services, we help advancement professionals stay on top of industry best practices, discover new ideas, and implement winning strategies for their annual funds.

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The Alumni Population Explosion

Posted on 04/29/2018 - by Dan Allenby

According to the Council for Aid to Education, the number of alumni of record from U.S. colleges and universities has increased dramatically over the past several decades. In fact, the average number of alumni per institution has nearly quadrupled, from around 15,000 in 1972 to 60,000 today. At the same time, the average number of alumni donors has remained relatively flat. Although one may think that this suggests a certain level of stability, it actually has a negative effect on alumni participation rates.

As the number of alumni grows, an institution needs to increase the number of alumni donors just to maintain its current alumni-to-donor ratio. Imagine that last year a college had 50,000 living alumni and that 5,000 of them made a contribution; its alumni participation rate would be 10 percent. Then imagine that the number of living alumni increased by 2 percent this year, to 51,000, perhaps due to an increase in enrollment or because fewer alumni died (not implausible as life expectancies are going up). If the college maintained its current alumni donor count of 5,000, its alumni participation rate would decline to 9.8 percent.

This scenario has become an all too familiar reality for many educational institutions and their annual giving programs—so much so that many programs have adopted the slogan “flat is the new up” when it comes to alumni participation rates. Does this mean that declining alumni participation rates should be accepted as a harsh but unavoidable reality, since the increasing size of alumni populations is beyond the direct control of annual giving programs?

Before you answer, ask yourself if you would accept population growth as a good excuse for declining employment rates. Probably not. Instead, you’d think something was broken within the economy. The way you think about alumni participation rates should be no different. The fact that rates have been declining steadily for so long is an indication that something is fundamentally wrong.

Several factors are at play when it comes to the increase in alumni populations. One of them is—good news!—gender equity. More women are going to college today than ever before. In the years following World War II, fewer than 30 percent of those enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary educational institutions were women.1 By 2011, that number had nearly doubled. Women now represent approximately 57 percent of enrollments in colleges and universities in the United States.

Another reason there are more alumni today is that there is a growing pressure for individuals to have a college degree to be competitive in the workplace. If you want to earn a decent income, your chances increase dramatically with a college degree. According to the Pew Research Center, the median annual earnings for full-time workers aged 25 to 32 with college degrees is $17,500 greater than for those with high school diplomas only. That gap widened steadily for each successive generation in the latter half of the 20th century.

International interest in U.S. higher education has also played a role in the rising number of alumni. Students from other countries are flooding into the U.S. higher education system, reaching record levels last year. They now make up over 4 percent of total enrollments for U.S. colleges and universities, with nearly half of them from China, India, and Korea.2 In 2014–2015, the number of international students in the United States increased by 10 percent, to a record high of 974,926 students. Part of what makes international students so appealing is that few of them receive financial aid; therefore, they provide institutions with a good source of revenue.

It should be no surprise that, as demand for college degrees has increased, not only has the U.S. higher education system produced many more alumni, but it’s had to establish more institutions. There are now over 4,500 postsecondary Title IV degree-granting institutions in the United States—a number that has increased by 45 percent since 1980.1

A larger alumni population may be a significant part of the oft-referenced “declining participation rates” story. While it’s important to recognize this, in order to get to the bottom of the real issue, you need to look at your body of alumni and question why a smaller portion of them are giving back to their alma mater each year.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Boosting Alumni Participation Rates.

1National Center for Education Statistics
2Institute of International Education

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Thinking Outside of Your Donor Database

Posted on 04/22/2018 - by Dan Allenby

Don’t be limited by the data that your institution is actively maintaining on constituents. These days you need to think outside of your donor database.

Social media is full of information and clues about your alumni and donors—and chances are, it’s more accurate and current than what is in your own database. Take LinkedIn, for example, where an individual’s public profile can provide three data points that can help you determine their potential capacity to make a gift: geographic location, employer and job title. Your alumni are far more likely to update their LinkedIn profile when they change jobs than they are to reach out to your alumni relations department with the news.

Engagement is no longer limited to physical presence, and watching how your alumni behave on social media can also tell you a lot about them. The posts they like and share can point to their interests and affinities. The people they’re connected to can tell you who influences them. Their comments can reveal opinions and tell you how they might feel about the things going on around your campus. Hamline University asked alumni on its Facebook page to comment with the name of a faculty member who made a difference in their lives. Alumni responded in droves. It not only turned out to be one of their most engaging posts ever, but it also revealed which professors were most popular with alumni—data that they could use later to determine future news stories in the alumni magazine or newsletters, or even to determine which influential faculty should be asked to sign annual fund appeals.

Online engagement can also help to identify new donors. For example, if you’re able to identify a group of alumni who like or share a particular post about the school’s pep band, then it stands to reason that those individuals would have a higher likelihood of responding to an appeal to support the pep band than would a randomly selected group of non-donors. And while mining social media data can require manual effort, there are tools on the market to make it easier and scalable.

Data has long empowered annual giving professionals to monitor, understand, and influence the outcomes of their programs. But now, by looking to social media to gather information about and engage your alumni, donors, and prospects, you can get outside the traditional data “box,” expand the depth and precision of your efforts, and increase your overall likelihood of success.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Mining Social Media Data.

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No Gift Is Too Small… Or Is It?

Posted on 04/15/2018 - by Dan Allenby

If you own a home (and you’re not the Home Depot type), you may at times find yourself looking for a handyman. When you do, keep in mind that their slogan can say a lot about them. Some slogans are assertive: We’ll fix it even if it’s not broken. Others are sincere: A helper with a heart. There are even a few that are humorous: I can repair what your husband fixed.

And then, of course, there’s the old handyman classic: No job is too small. One could argue that this translates easily to annual giving. In a world where donor participation is a high priority, it’s no surprise that encouraging gifts of all sizes has become commonplace in fundraising scripts and appeals.

But is it really true to suggest that no gift is too small?

It’s easy to understand why annual giving programs might want to pursue small donations. Soliciting nominal gifts ($1, for example) is a common way to include or “count” those who want to support the institution but simply don’t have much money. Many students and young alumni fall into this category. A dollar is better than nothing, right? Maybe not. There are, in fact, downsides to small gifts.

Consider the expense of processing a donation. When you factor in the staff time and budget required to record a gift in the database, produce an acknowledgment and mail the receipt, each gift usually costs an organization more than a few dollars.

Think about the future too – specifically donor retention rates. You may be counting the individual as a donor now, but what’s the likelihood that a $1 dollar donor will give again in the future? The following chart shows that there is a correlation between gift size and retention rates. The larger the gift amount, the higher the retention rate. This means, of course, that a smaller gift amount corresponds to a lower retention rate. So while a $1 gift might help boost your participation rate in the short-term, it likely won’t do much to help you build a sustainable base of support.


It’s worth recognizing that there is a difference between soliciting a small gift and accepting one. Don’t ignore industry standards: the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) guidelines clearly state that it is not appropriate to ask alumni for a minuscule amount of money just to boost your percentage of alumni giving.

CASE suggests that the mission of advancement programs is to build support for their institutions and that this is not properly served through token gifts. A recent poll of educational institutions shows that 75% require a minimum donation of $5 or more for an online gift. And it seems that having a minimum gift requirement won’t necessarily hurt your participation rates. Columbia University secured 14,269 gifts as part of a recent Giving Day, despite the fact that they required a donation of at least $10.

So, if the door to your kitchen cabinet comes off its hinges, it might be nice to know that there are handymen out there who are eager to help you with even this small job. However, you might want to think twice before you apply the same idea to your annual giving strategy.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Annual Fund Leadership Gift Strategy.

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5 Tips For Making The Ask

Posted on 04/08/2018 - by Dan Allenby

People make charitable donations for many different reasons. Some give out of a sense of loyalty and appreciation for an experience they had, because they want to make a difference in the life of another, or because they believe that the institution has a positive impact through its teaching, research or other programs. Others give because they receive something of value in exchange for their support—special access, tax breaks, parking or other privileges. But the number one reason people give is quite simple: because they are asked.

There are several things that need to be aligned to ensure that everyone is “prepared” for a gift solicitation to take place. First, you need to find the right prospect. This is someone who has a relationship with or an interest in your institution as well as the inclination and capacity to make a gift. You also need to determine the right time. Maybe it’s been a year since the prospect’s last gift, it’s a reunion year for the prospect’s class, or maybe your institution is marking a special occasion like the anniversary of its founding. And then, you need to figure out the right amount to ask for. If you’ve done your homework, you should have a good sense of this number. As a general rule, it’s important to aim high while considering the individual prospect’s past giving and capacity.

Whether you’re a professional gift officer, a phonathon caller or a volunteer, keep in mind the following five guidelines the next time you solicit a prospect for money:

  1. Little yeses can lead to big yeses. Warm up your prospective donors by asking them simple questions about themselves framed in a positive way.
  2. Be specific, confident, and precise. Always ask for a specific amount. Avoid casual second attempts that start out like, “Well, then, how about…”
  3. Set the bar high. If at first, you don’t succeed, you can always try again with a smaller amount. But once they say yes, you can’t ask for more.
  4. Be ready to overcome objections. Familiarize yourself with common refusal reasons. Prepare (and practice) a response to each one.
  5. Don’t let an awkward silence get the better of you. After you ask, sit quietly and wait for the prospect to respond. The one who speaks first loses.

Remember that it’s a conversation, not an auction. Being solicited should never come as a surprise to your prospect, but ultimately they make their own decisions about giving. You’re just there to lend a hand. If you prepare and practice before every gift solicitation, more often than not it will be a rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Face-to-Face Solicitations.

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A Simple Way To Measure Alumni Engagement

Posted on 04/01/2018 - by Dan Allenby

Whether you work in annual giving or alumni relations, it’s important to know that you’re both on the same team. Unfortunately, there is a lot that can get in the way when these two groups try to work together. Sometimes the obstacles are organizational – like when the departments have different bosses or are located in different locations around campus. Other times, the obstacles are strategic – like when they have different goals and priorities.

When it comes to setting goals and priorities, annual giving professionals tend to concentrate on getting alumni and others to donate money, while alumni relations professionals generally focus on involving alumni through events, educational programs, and social networks. Having distinct goals is understandable and helps each unit assess its own productivity in the short-term. However, both groups should have the same common goal over the long-term: increasing alumni engagement.

One of the biggest challenges of tracking engagement is that there isn’t a universally-accepted way to measure it. With so many factors to consider and different ways to calculate engagement, a lot of advancement programs end up talking about it but never actually doing it. The trick is to keep it simple. Rather than accounting for every single action that could be considered a form of engagement, try focusing on a few of the most important ways alumni can engage. Use those ways to create a score for your entire alumni population and then measure the change over a period of time. Here’s an example:

  1. Take a random sample of 200 alumni records from your database.
  2. Assign 1 point to each record when you see evidence of any of the following actions: attending an event, serving as a volunteer, or making a gift.
  3. Produce an “engagement score” for each record between 0 and 3 based on the sum of the individual points assigned to each action.
  4. Sort the scores for each of the 200 records from lowest to highest and identify the median (i.e., mid-point) for the entire sample population.
  5. Wait a year and repeat this process to see if/how the score has changed.

One of the reasons why it’s so important to monitor alumni engagement is that simply doing so improves your chances of increasing it. That’s because people are more inclined to achieve what they measure. What’s more is that the individual types of engagement can have a positive impact on one another. For example, alumni who serve as volunteers are more likely to make a gift later on – and vice versa. Engagement builds upon itself, helping to create a stronger alumni community and support the institution’s overall advancement efforts today and well into the future.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Alumni Relations & Annual Giving Collaboration. 

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6 Signs You Need an Annual Fund Assessment

Posted on 03/25/2018 - by Dan Allenby

It’s usually pretty clear when an annual fund is running at peak performance. Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious when one is underperforming. Sometimes a program can appear to be okay when, in fact, it’s not living up to its full potential. This can result in thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars being left on the table.

One of the best ways to evaluate the performance of your annual fund is through an external audit – also known as a “program assessment.” This is a structured review of your operation that can help you to identify strengths and weaknesses and determine where there is the greatest opportunity for improvement. It’s best conducted by a third party or a consultant who, in addition to providing expertise, can remain objective.

In the same way that you don’t need to be a mechanic to recognize that your car is making a “funny noise” or that it’s due for some regularly-scheduled maintenance, you don’t need to be an expert to know that your annual fund is due for a checkup. If you can answer “yes” to one (or more) of the following 6 questions, it’s a sign that it may be a good time for an Annual Fund Assessment:

  1. Have your annual giving results been in decline?
  2. Does your annual fund lack clear priorities or goals?
  3. Does it seem like your annual giving strategy hasn’t changed much in recent years?
  4. Are you in (or preparing for) a campaign?
  5. Has there been a lot of turnover among your annual giving staff?
  6. Are you planning to hire (or have you recently hired) a new annual fund director?

Be aware that your program doesn’t need to be on the brink of breaking down to benefit from a program assessment. Just as regular oil changes and tune-ups can help avoid car troubles in the future, preventative maintenance is the surest way to keep your annual fund in the best possible shape.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE to request more information and find out how an AGN Program Assessment could improve your annual giving efforts.

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Alumni Engagement & Giving with “Fantasy Reunion”

Posted on 03/18/2018 - by Dan Allenby

In the late 1950s, Oakland businessman Wilfred Winkenbach organized a contest for his friends and colleagues in which 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 won. 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 to the Association. On average, participants spend over $556 each on league-related costs.

Johns Hopkins University came up with a way to capitalize on the fantasy sports craze, engage volunteers, and mobilize alumni to support class programs: Fantasy Reunion. Led by captains, alumni organized themselves into affinity-based teams of eleven and then earned points for participating in various activities including:

  • 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

Teams that earned the most points between mid-January and the end of March were awarded prizes (e.g., Apple watches, event tickets, swag). There was also a prize for the individual with the highest score. While most participants were motivated by the competitive nature of the activity, these extra incentives did a lot to keep people engaged and excited.

Fantasy Reunion proved to be a great way to engage volunteers, boost registrations, and encourage support for the university. And while nothing beats the personal interaction that former classmates experienced during reunion weekend itself, the fun and competition that was built online in the weeks and months beforehand definitely helped make the celebration even more successful.

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Engaging Volunteers Online.

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