Podcast: Interview with Dan Allenby (Full Transcript)

AGN’s Founder, Dan Allenby, recently joined the “Fundraising Voices” podcast for a candid conversation about his 20-year journey through the field of annual giving. Among the many topics covered in this exclusive interview are how he got his start, some of the big surprises he’s encountered along the way, the real story behind the creation of AGN, and the goals and aspirations for its rapidly growing Plus Membership program.

The interview also includes highlights from Dan’s new book and AGN’s Annual Report, as well as some of his personal predictions for the future of the annual giving industry. Read the full transcript below or click here to listen to the podcast recording.

Interviewer: If you’re an annual giving professional, particularly in higher education, you’ve probably heard about Annual Giving Network. Dan Allenby, founder of the Network, has done a great job addressing whatever’s hot in annual giving strategy today, while focusing on the fundamentals. With great content, webinars, a job-posting network, and great member interaction, annualgiving.com has become a destination for those of us who want to stay educated about the best ways to engage donors. In fact, Dan comes off like he was born into annual giving, and, based on what he told me, that’s not too far from the truth. I wanted to get Dan on the line to talk about AGN’s strategy and what he’s trying to accomplish with the network. Here’s the interview. Brian here. I’m on the line with Dan Allenby, founder of Annual Giving Network, a place that I know a lot of us go for insights in annual giving. Dan, thanks for your time today.
Dan Allenby: Hey, thanks. Great to be here.
Interviewer: You’ve been in the fundraising and annual giving field for quite some time now. How did you end up in this career and why do you keep doing it? Why do you love it?
Dan Allenby: Well, I can honestly say I was born into it. My father worked in development for his entire career, actually, after a short stint in banking. He started working for a public university back in the 70s and did that right up until he retired just a few years ago. He was always in higher education. He was always in major gifts and management. He’s the one who got me thinking about development as a career. He actually gave me some advice when I first started out. He said, “If you want to get your start in development, annual giving is probably a great place to do it.” That was good advice. I took it.

I actually got a job fresh out of college, running a phone-a-thon program at a university down in Washington, DC. I never looked back. It’s been annual giving ever since. At the beginning, it sort of felt like an arranged marriage, but I’ve very much grown to love the field. I love a lot of things about it. First and foremost, there’s never a dull moment. You have 365 days to achieve your goals and get as many donors and as many dollars through the door. Then after 365 it stops, and it starts all over again. It has all the excitement of a political campaign but the strategy of a chess game. To me, annual giving it’s an art and a science, and I think that makes it really exciting. For me, I made a decision back when I founded Annual Giving Network that this was going to be a lifetime commitment to me. I found my calling, and AGN is just the platform to help live that out.

Interviewer: That’s great. Over the last couple years, you’ve really taken AGN from a LinkedIn page to a blog to just incredible webinars and a lot of content available for people, just a steady stream of really great stuff. We quote it on our website pretty regularly. What are you trying to accomplish with the Annual Giving Network? What’s the goal here?
Dan Allenby: Thank you first of all, for sharing our stuff. It’s really simple: our goal is to be the world’s leading resource for annual giving programs. We are here because we are trying to help annual giving programs, annual giving professionals – primarily in the education sector right now – to be the best programs that they can be. We do that through training. Our webinars are really there to help annual giving professionals and annual giving managers, we’re thinking of them, too, who have staff that they need to train. They’re dealing with constant turnover of staff. There’s always something new happening in annual giving. At the same time, there’s always fundamentals that need to be taught.

It’s really our goal to get out there and identify who the experts are in the field of annual giving, who the practitioners are that are doing great work at their own institutions, and developing curriculum – webinars and courses and workshops – where we can deliver those to annual giving professionals and to managers who need to train their team. While a lot of our work so far has focused on training through webinars, we’re certainly thinking ahead and doing more research, surveys and case studies and white papers and really trying to figure out what are the things that we can offer to the annual giving world that’s going to help annual giving professionals excel at what they do?

Interviewer: What does a membership to the Annual Giving Network get you? What do members receive?
Dan Allenby: The term “member” is an important one. We’ve got a network of about 40,000 annual giving professionals. These are people who are plugged in, they’re visiting our website – which is annualgiving.com – on a regular basis. They’re subscribed to our newsletter, they’re participating in our webinars, they’re posting jobs on our job board. When we use the term member we can sort of start there. A couple years ago, we launched a preferred membership program. We actually have what we call AGN Plus. That’s a couple hundred institutions, mostly colleges, universities, and independent schools. We certainly have some healthcare organizations in there. We’ll be expanding that in the future.

Our AGN Plus members, they get a number of things. First and foremost, they get unlimited free access to all of our content, all of our webinars. We’ve got dozens and dozens of webinars and hours of training material. They get access to that. Actually starting next month we’re going to be launching a new members only portal. That’s going to be just for our Plus members. It’s going to be a place where they can log in, they can download all the webinars free, they can search them. We’ve designed a curriculum. We’ve created six core domains, which is basically the basis of our curriculum. All the research we do and all of the training that we create is sort of built around these six core domains.

When you log into this members only portal, you’re going to be able to search by domain, you’re going to be able to create your own customized training program for yourself or your staff. This is where you’re going to be able to network with other member institutions and really connect with experts, too. It’s where you would log in if you’ve got a question or a problem that you’re trying to solve, either for your program or your own career. Our Plus members get direct access to our experts, and all that can happen through the portal.

Interviewer: I like that you’re taking it in that real sort of curricular direction. The idea of providing a membership that’s institution-based where everyone at the institution can share, it’s just really smart. We’ve seen that with several of our professional organizations. I think it’s gone really well. I think there’s a lot to be learned right now because donors are changing. Many of our old tactics, the response rates are changing. We’ve got to watch was people are doing. I think sharing is absolutely important. You’ve been doing this long enough, and I’m sure you’ve probably had some surprises here. What do you think you’ve gained as the leader of the network? What’s surprised you and what are you learning through AGN?
Dan Allenby: I’m always surprised. When we set out to do this, one of the things that we committed to early and we remain committed to and we’ll continue to be committed to is we are Annual Giving Network, AGN. That really is the niche that we want to stay focused on. What we are committed to doing is being the world’s leading resource for annual giving programs. We want to do that by being better than anybody else at understanding what’s going on in annual giving and how we can help people. When I first led with that strategy, a lot of my colleagues and friends said, “Dan, you’re going to run out of things to talk about. Annual giving is only so big. It’s just phone and mail.” The truth is, it’s quite the opposite. To be honest, there is so much to cover that we can’t grow fast enough. The world of annual giving is huge. Even if you just want to stay in the niche of education – colleges and universities – and focus on annual giving, there’s just so much to talk about.

I think in terms of what has surprised me is it’s the deeper and more specific you try to go and focusing on annual giving and annual giving practices, the bigger this universe seems to become. There’s always something new. At the same time, the fundamentals are still very much alive and well. There’s digital and analytics, social media, these things have had a major impact on all industries, annual giving is no exception. At the same time, I have to remind myself as we go about running the organization and developing content and doing training that the fundamentals don’t go away. It’s still a business of people. It’s still about having an organization that does great things in the world and has a positive impact in the world and connecting with donors who maybe already have a relationship with the institution, showing them by supporting the institution and doing that on a regular basis, they can have a real impact on the world. It’s exciting, and annual giving is getting bigger and bigger and bigger every day that goes by.

Interviewer:: Absolutely. I think that idea of keeping track of what the newest ways to engage donors are but, like you said, not losing the fundamentals. Definitely need to look at that new technology, we’re seeing giving days, crowdfunding, numerous great ways to engage people digitally, but, hey, if you don’t have a good message and you don’t thank your donors, you’re probably not going to raise a lot of money, right?
Dan Allenby: Yeah, absolutely.
Interviewer: You recently published an overview of your 2016 insights, which I know came from your research surveys, a lot of work with the webinars and other content. Can you just give us a little teaser of this? We’ll give people a link to download it. What are some of the interesting statistics and trends that you saw in that piece?
Dan Allenby: We just came out with this report at the beginning of the year, about two months ago in 2017. This is actually the fifth year in a row that we’ve produced a research report. We started AGN about seven years ago. Starting in 2013 if my math is correct. It might have been 2012, we started doing some research. We would basically poll the members and conduct surveys of the members to try to figure out what was on their mind, what were some consistent problems they were having, what were some of the key performance metrics they were seeing, where were they investing their resources? Every year up until this point, in the fall we’ve basically taken all of our research, compiled it into a research report, and shared that back out with the industry and with our members.

This year, we took a little bit of a different approach. We went back through a lot of our research and combed back through some of our webinars. We basically wanted to make it a best of report. There was so much information and ideas that were coming out of the webinars and our content that we decided “let’s find the best stuff and let’s put it into one report.” Really what it is, is it’s a compilation of statistics and case studies all kind of summarized in one document. Again, you can download it on our website, annualgiving.com. Some of the data in there is not going to be too terribly surprising to people who work in annual giving. If anything, it’s probably going to confirm some of the things that you might already know. There’s definitely some surprising data in there, too.

One of the things that really blew my mind is two out of three annual giving programs begin the year without a plan. Every 365 days you’ve got to start this whole routine again. That’s what a lot of people love about it. That’s what I love about it, but you got to have a plan. You need to always be sort of analyzing. It’s understandable why that happens, because I think a year goes by quick and 90% of annual giving programs end their fiscal year on June 30th. I think a lot of people are just kind of excited to hit the beaches in the summer and give themselves a little break. Then they come back and it’s September or October and you’re already three or four months into the year and that’s when you’re starting to think about your plan. Just imagine how much more effective programs could be if they were more strategic.

That’s one of the things AGN wants to help with. We want to help not just with training. We’re here to help with strategy. We’re not a consulting company, but we do offer consulting services. We’ve got a great team of consultants. We’ve got some of the world’s best faculty teaching our webinars, and they do some consulting for us. More and more, we’re actually moving into search, too. We have, at any given time, 30 or 40 annual giving positions are being advertised on our website. That’s just because we get a lot of traffic. People come in to read the blog and get our other content. We’re realizing that more and more, annual giving is such a specialty. Again, while we didn’t set out to be a search firm, we are able to help organizations recruit and connect with the most talented annual giving professionals out there.

If I were to sort of describe AGN’s approach to this? We’re trying to be really holistic. We want to be the organization that can help you recruit talented staff to run your annual giving programs. We want to help you train those staff, and then we want to help you evaluate your program on the backend. If you think about that as sort of a cycle, that’s really how we’re trying to add value to annual giving programs out there. The report has got a lot of great information in it, and again at annualgiving.com you can download a free copy, but there’s probably 50 different data points summarized there and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the data that AGN has to offer.

Interviewer:: Dan, you have this great book out, Ideas for Annual Giving, published through CASE here subtitled: Pea Pods, Parachutes and Other Designs for Boosting Alumni Participation. I love it. What were you trying to accomplish with the book? What’s in there for people?
Dan Allenby: Well gosh, I was just trying to write a book, for one thing, which is no easy task. Actually I was trying to help annual giving programs solve a problem. When I first set out to write the book, the problem that I was seeing is that there was this thing called “the tyranny of the mega gift,” that was basically becoming a major challenge for annual giving programs. I didn’t think people were really appreciating where that was coming from our why. To anybody who works in annual giving this might sound familiar, but it’s not uncommon for annual giving programs to feel like they’re getting second class treatment as compared to major gift programs.

We were just talking before this interview, Brian, about what chief advancement officers see as priority. As the ones who are expected to run these multi-million dollar campaigns, the pressure that they’re feeling from the board and the president is to raise money. That’s really what their priority is. The truth of the matter is that if you are setting out to raise a lot of money, the best way to do that isn’t to pass the hat. If you need to raise $1,000, the best way to raise $1,000, the most efficient way and the way that you’re going to have the most success isn’t to go find ten people to give you $100. The best and most efficient way to do it is to go out and find one person who really digs what you’re doing and has the means to part with $1,000, and to try to convince that one donor to give you $1,000. Whether you like the sound of that or not, that’s just good, fundamental fundraising.

The same holds true in higher education. Higher education in particular has done a terrific job at raising more money. They do that by launching major comprehensive campaigns, by hiring talented advancement officers to lead their efforts. As they’re trying to figure out how to achieve these big goals, they’ve realized that while participation and broad-based efforts – the things that sort of live in annual giving – are important, that’s not necessarily the best way to raise big dollars. What we’ve seen is fundraising organizations focused on principle gifts and major gifts and probably leaving annual giving, while they might give it lip service it’s important, the truth is they probably haven’t over the past 20 years invested in it or made it the priority within their own institutions.

The result of that is what we see in this 20 year consistent year-over-year decline of alumni participation. Every year, the percentage of alumni who give back to their alma mater has been decreasing. There’s a lot of reasons for that. Tuition increases, changing alumni attitudes, and competition from nonprofit organizations are all major factors in that. The truth is I think the biggest issue is that colleges, universities, and independent schools just haven’t really made alumni engagement, alumni participation a big priority.

I wanted to write this book to draw people’s attention to that, first and foremost, and then secondly to give them a solution. You can still in today’s environment develop an annual giving program and alumni engagement program that can yield an increase in alumni participation rates. That was really what the book was about, was trying to call attention to this problem and give people a solution. It’s not a long book. It’s pretty easy to read. It’s ten chapters. Basically it’s providing people with a roadmap for how you increase alumni participation and how you increase, while you’re doing that, make for a stronger annual giving culture at your institution. CASE was good enough to publish the book and thanks to  Doug Goldenberg-Hart, the editor who worked with me to make sure we got this out last summer. We were able to release it, and now it’s available for all. You can get a copy on the website, annualgiving.com. You can also get it on CASE’s website, too.

Interviewer:: Yeah, it’s great. Really interesting kernels. Little yeses can lead to big yeses. Just great stuff in here, and examples as well, too. We don’t see that a lot of times when people put out things through your network. You’ve been able to find great examples. I love that point, that, yeah, we are definitely seeing a decline in alumni participation but there are in fact many institutions – and you and I have worked with some of them – that have had huge gains in alumni participation, even over the last few years, and even during the recession. It’s by no means a foregone conclusion, if you’re willing to actually put the resources and maybe be a little bit more creative in terms of getting out there and giving the message.
Dan Allenby: And bold. I think it’s as simple as just making it a priority. The recipe is out there. The number one ingredient is make alumni participation, make annual giving a priority. Set goals, and you’ll achieve those goals as long as you’re really focused on them and committed to them.
Interviewer: Absolutely. Use you crystal ball here. You’ve got a ton of experience working with institutions in terms of what they’re doing for their annual giving programs. What do you think is the future of annual giving? What’s going to happen next? What are the Allenby predictions?
Dan Allenby: I think it’s going to become more important. I think as we see media and analytics sort of become increasingly sophisticated, I think you’re going to see a lot of that live within annual giving. I think you’re going to see more investment in annual giving as an industry. I do think you will eventually sort of see a plateauing to the alumni participation rate, but I think that’s going to play out for a few more years. I think naturally you’re going to see a movement towards more digital programs, using social media and mining social data. I think you’re going to see annual giving programs playing catch-up, really, to where the Amazon’s of the world are right now and a lot of banking institutions and sort of figuring out “how do you give your donors – in the same way that Amazon and Bank of America give their customers – an online experience?” Whether they’re trying to consume some information about the institution and about giving to the institution or just simply trying to transact, I think that’s going to be an important skill that’s going to live within annual giving.

I think you’re going to begin to find annual giving much more integrated with alumni relations and alumni engagement, too. We were talking before about Stanford’s big decision to eliminate their phone program, but if I had to predict, I don’t think you’re going to see the end of the phone program any time too soon. I think what you are going to see is a rethinking of phone-a-thon programs and their role within advancement shops. It’s not necessarily going to be measured in terms of ROI and how much cash those programs bring in. I think those phone-a-thon programs are going to be used in much more flexible ways. They’re going to be used to engage alumni and connect with them and understand alumni and increase engagement. It’s going to be used to promote events, do market research, conduct stewardship. I think you’re going to see it used and integrated with plan giving and major giving to do plan giving prospect research or maybe even help secure appointments for gift offices when they’re out there.

All of these things combined together, it’s not going to be about how much did the program bring in. It’s going to be more of a “how do we use this as part of our overall prospect and alumni engagement strategy?” Stay tuned. I think you’re going to see phone programs go through a lot of change. I don’t think you’re going to see the end of the phone-a-thon program any time soon. As a matter of fact, you talked about the report that we just put out. Close to 90% of institutions haven’t even thought about getting rid of their phone program, even though Stanford recently kind of shocked the world by eliminating theirs. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see programs like Stanford – I won’t call them out specifically – but I think you’re going to see programs changing the way they utilize their phone-a-thon resource. Eliminating them completely? I’m not sure that’s going to happen anytime soon.

Interviewer: Dan offers a lot of great insights for how we can do the best job possible engaging, asking, and thanking our annual giving donors. Like he said, we do restart every year in annual giving, but the fundamentals of a donor engagement strategy really never go away. You can find out more about Annual Giving Network at annualgiving.com and download the 2016 insights piece we talked about. Thanks for listening.