The First To Know
Running an annual fund gift society isn’t difficult. Just about anyone can come up with a name and a list of levels and benefits. But will that be enough to get alumni to join and renew? Will it compel members to increase their giving from one year to the next? Will it make them want to tell their friends about it? No; developing a gift society that’s truly appealing and valuable for members requires something more.
Take the name, for example. Some programs choose a generic name like the president’s circle, the headmaster’s society or the dean’s associates – titles that could be applied to any institution, at any time, anywhere in the world. But finding a name that’s unique and meaningful to your specific alumni and donors can make them feel like they’re part of something truly important. Many institutions use a significant year, a person, or a place in their history to brand their gift society or the various recognition levels within it.
Similarly, some annual giving programs rely on loosely-defined benefits to incentivize membership and encourage donors to move “up” to higher giving levels over time. After all, the less specific you are, the easier is it to get by when you don’t deliver, right? Common among these generic promises are “dedicated communications,” “special events,” or “distinct recognition.” Some institutions even offer stuff (think wall calendar!) to members in return for their support. According to an AGN poll, 59 percent of gift societies at educational institutions offer members tangible perks.
While these things might be enticing to some, the truth is that what members find most valuable isn’t necessarily something you can read or attend or hold. More often than not, what they really want is insider access. They want to be the first to know when something important happens. There’s no better way to help set your members apart as an important group and let them know that they are special. And a lot of times, this won’t cost you a dime.
Amherst College gets it. Their 1821 Society (named after the year of their founding) has everything you might expect to find in an annual fund leadership donor society. Its approximately 1,500 members are required to donate a minimum of $1,821 each year. Graduates of the past decade can join at a discounted rate ($1,000 for those who are 6-10 years out and $500 for those who are 1-5 years out), and there are premium tiers and perks for those who give at the $10,000+ and $25,000+ levels.
In return, all members receive a copy of The 1821 Journal and invitations to attend four special 1821 Society events (primarily breakfasts and cocktail parties) which are held on campus around reunion and homecoming, as well as in major cities throughout the year. Each event features a talk from a faculty member or a student who has an inspiring story to tell. For many alumni (especially younger alumni) these events are viewed as great professional networking opportunities.
What makes The 1821 Society so effective, though, is the insider access it provides to its members. For example, when the Board of Trustees made a resolution to discontinue the use of “Lord Jeffery” as its unofficial mascot following a series of controversies related to the historical figure, the college set up a conference call with 1821 Society members to give them the inside scoop. The President participated in the call and offered members a chance to ask questions and voice opinions. The annual fund’s phonathon callers were also put on the front lines during this time, calling members to ensure that they heard the news before others.
Successful gift societies don’t need to be fancy or complicated and they don’t need to offer members free stuff. In fact, the most effective gift societies are quite simple. What sets them apart, is that they offer members something unique, meaningful and valuable – something that they can’t find or buy anywhere else. Sometimes that can be as basic as making sure they are the first to know when something important occurs.
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