AGN regularly publishes articles on its website and in its newsletters providing information, ideas and advice to help advancement professionals understand and address some of the industry’s most important challenges and trends. Filled tips, examples, and case studies, AGN articles often feature members and other educational institutions around the world.
View the most recent articles below, or use the search box in the top right corner to search our entire library of past articles by keyword.
Every individual donor has their own preference for how they would like to interact with—and be treated by—the organizations they support. While some might prefer to get a call from a student, others would rather receive letters or emails. And many donors, especially major donors, appreciate the ability to have personal interactions and meetings with gift officers.
The quandary is that annual giving programs are typically tasked with communicating with large audiences. Teams need to leverage economies of scale to reach large alumni, parent, and friend audiences—sometimes targeting hundreds of thousands of households with a single mail piece. Even with advanced segmentation and a sophisticated ask ladder, it’s difficult to create an experience that feels tailor-made for the donor.
Despite these challenges, donors need to believe that their institutions value them as individuals, and not just an individual in a sea of supporters. This is especially important after they have made a gift. At the heart of good fundraising and stewardship is the concept of being “donor-centric,” or putting the donor first: anticipating how donors would like to be asked, which vehicle they’d like to give through, and how they’d like to be acknowledged for their gift. Unfortunately, it can be hard to predict exactly where a donor’s preferences lie.
University of California Santa Cruz addressed this issue head-on by simply asking donors how they’d like to be thanked for their gift on the institution’s giving day. According to Mary Garcia, Assistant Director of Donor Relations at UC Santa Cruz, donors were given the choice to be thanked via email, a personalized video, a note in the mail, or a phone call. The options were listed in a drop-down field on their giving form.
This was their first time offering stewardship options, so UC Santa Cruz staff members weren’t sure what to expect or which choice would be the most popular. The donor volume was high, as their giving day brought in over 7,000 donors. They were hoping they had enough staff and students lined up to fulfill the requests as they came in. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of donors (74 percent) chose to be thanked via email, which was the easiest of the four choices to fulfill, since emails can be deployed to the masses. Personalized videos and handwritten notes via mail were the runners-up in terms of popularity, garnering 11 percent and 13 percent of the selections, respectively. Perhaps surprisingly, only 1 percent of donors wished to receive calls thanking them for their gift. Nearly all of these stewardship touches were deployed day-of, with handwritten notes being sent throughout the remainder of the week.
First utilized on their giving day in February 2019, this innovative idea was met with overwhelmingly positive responses from donors across all populations—alumni, parents, friends, and faculty/staff members. Next year, the UC Santa Cruz team is considering adding a text thank you to the list of options.
In annual giving, there will always be the challenge of how to best communicate with large audiences. Identifying strategic opportunities to ask for and—even more critically—act upon donor feedback can demonstrate that your institution is committed to developing a personal relationship with each constituent. And the more you make individual donors feel appreciated in a personal way, the more successful your efforts are likely to be.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Effective Gift Acknowledgments.
Here’s an alarming statistic: 84 percent of annual giving programs report that their current year plan is exactly the same—or only slightly modified—as their plan from last year. While doing the same thing year after year may be easy, it’s also a sure-fire way to bore your donors and attain poor results. If you want your annual fund to grow, you’ll need to build a plan that capitalizes on the successes of previous years while testing new ideas.
The challenge is that many annual giving professionals don’t know where to begin when it comes to developing a plan. While the first step may be the hardest one to take, it’s also the most important one.
Meg Weber, Executive Director of Annual Giving at Colorado State University, believes that launching the planning process the right way is critical to success. She suggests starting several months before the end of the fiscal year by following these three steps:
First, look at the data. Knowing revenue and donor counts by channels and reviewing year-over-year performance will provide insight on trends. This will ensure that you set reasonable targets for the next fiscal year. Even though the final numbers for the current year won’t be available, year-to-date comparisons can illuminate trends and predict results.
Next, meet with advancement leadership and share the data before the books close. These conversations can clarify how annual giving fits into the big picture of development at your institution and determine current priorities, resources, and expectations. Understanding the big picture—and helping leadership see the important role annual giving plays in the overall advancement operation—will ensure that the annual fund plan aligns with organizational priorities.
Finally, set a few preliminary goals. Increasing donors and dollars are almost always going to be priorities for an annual fund, but consider other objectives, too. Identify new ideas you want to test or a few big-picture changes you’d like to make. Is it time to try a giving day? Should you rethink your phonathon strategy? Do you need to beef up your stewardship and donor retention efforts?
Once things are underway, Weber emphasizes that planning should continue as an iterative process. She suggests taking time to get feedback from internals partners. At Colorado State, this includes advancement colleagues, unit fundraisers, the alumni association, and the annual giving staff. Not only do these team members offer advice on key strategies, they are also asked to provide their thoughts on the plan once it has been formalized. Ultimately, soliciting feedback and gaining early buy-in from key stakeholders will help shape a successful annual fund plan.
It’s not hard to recognize the importance and benefit of annual fund planning, but that doesn’t make it easy to execute, especially well. By focusing on three simple steps to help guide your initial efforts, you can embark on an effective planning process and ensure your annual fund kicks off the next fiscal year in the best possible place.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Designing a Winning Annual Fund Plan.
One of the best ways to cultivate relationships with important donors (and prospective donors) is through face-to-face meetings. Personal interaction allows gift officers to gain valuable insight into a prospect’s personality, interests, and gift capacity, while providing opportunities for the prospect to build bonds with the institution and learn about its priorities.
Unfortunately, most institutions don’t have the luxury of seeing all of their donors in their own backyards. In order to have those important in-person meetings, some out-of-town travel is often necessary. And while there may be a glamorous side to life on the road, traveling to meet with donors can also be a lot of work. When a trip doesn’t go well, it’s often because the gift officer didn’t take the proper steps to prepare.
With all that goes into travel planning, starting early is critical to success. Laura Tepper, the Director of Development at Penn Law and a seasoned “road warrior,” incorporates her travel plans into her annual calendar and then schedules time in advance for her donor outreach and preparation. As you consider the trip planning process, Tepper suggests integrating the following tactics to ensure productive out-of-town visits:
- Use data to identify good prospects. Data and predictive modeling can help you assess which prospects should be added to your potential visit list. Consider your larger donors to be your “anchors” for the trip—these meetings are critical and should be your starting point to guarantee that the travel is worth your time and investment. Once those visits are secured, broaden your scope by reaching out to a more diverse group of prospects, including those who have never made a gift but have capacity based on your research. It’s important to add donors you want to steward or engage as volunteers as well.
- Make meetings appealing. Find a setting and a structure that works for each individual prospect. For example, young alumni and reunion volunteers often feel comfortable in group meetings. Being flexible with visit times and locations is also key so that donors do not need to go out of their way to make meetings work for their schedules.
- Prepare an elevator pitch. Outline all of the main points that you want to discuss and practice the ask if there’s going to be one. This will help you stay on task, especially if the meeting is short. In addition, create a mini-briefing for each visit with key biographical information.
- Go over trip logistics. Setting reasonable expectations for yourself is important, so be sure to establish some guidelines around the necessary travel time between meetings, the number of visits that you can handle per day, etc. Ask co-workers for advice as you are planning your trip—if someone has visited the city before, they can provide valuable insight into good hotels, meeting locations, and how best to get around. Be sure to share your itinerary with your supervisor and all of your colleagues before you leave.
- Prioritize your follow-up after the meeting. Capture the important details and the outcome of the meeting as soon as possible, through quick notes or even using a phone recording app. This will help you draft a more complete contact report later, when you have more time. Aim to send an email to the prospect within 24 hours of the meeting, expressing thanks and answering any questions that weren’t covered during the conversation. In those emails, include links to your institution’s website in order to provide additional information regarding topics that were discussed or ways prospects can get more involved.
Tepper emphasizes that successful trips require a strategic approach to everything, from how you structure your meetings to where you stay. With thoughtful advance planning—including a healthy dose of prospect research, an attention to logistics, and proper prep for every conversation—as well as prompt documentation and outreach after each visit, you’ll be more ready than ever to hit the road.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Traveling to Meet with Donors.
Alumni participation is an increasingly important metric for annual giving programs and a high priority for institutional leadership. Unfortunately, participation rates at educational institutions have declined over the past two decades. In fact, the national percentage of alumni who give back to their alma mater each year reached a high of 18 percent in the 1990s—and this figure currently stands at 8 percent.
Though there are numerous reasons for the decline, a drop in giving by young alumni has played a big part. For years, advancement programs have ignored recent graduates, excluding them from important alumni relations activities and fundraising appeals. Fresh out of school and just launching their careers, recent grads were simply not seen as strong donor prospects. Instead, institutions focused on older alumni who were likely to be settled in their professional lives and capable of supporting their schools at higher levels.
Many institutions are now realizing that the sooner alumni are engaged, the more likely they are to stay involved and give back. Additionally, research shows that a high number of major gift donors actually begin their philanthropic relationships within the first few years after graduation. But engaging young alumni doesn’t simply mean hitting them up with fundraising appeals. Finding softer ways to convey the importance of alumni involvement and the impact of philanthropy is critical, and showing them that there are a variety of ways to stay connected can set the stage for loyal support for years to come.
With recent graduates in mind, the annual giving team at Davidson College created a brochure mailing for young alumni that highlights the many opportunities for them to stay “plugged in.” It includes details about how to join an alumni chapter, take advantage of volunteer opportunities, and stay updated about school news through social media. It also highlights the impact of young alumni support with an infographic illustrating young alumni participation, giving totals, and philanthropic impact.
According to Caitlin James, Director of Annual Giving, Davidson’s goal was to appeal to the young alumni audience by using terms like “small change means big impact,” acknowledging that donors may be in different places in life, and it’s okay to make smaller gifts that fit with their current capacity.
The brochure was sent to all graduates of the past decade and was part of Davidson’s larger engagement strategy. Other educational efforts with young alumni in FY18 included a campus “lunch-and-learn” on giving to Davidson, ongoing senior class gift education efforts, and a “Young Alumni Philanthropy” webinar, which aimed to help young alumni make informed decisions about their giving to Davidson (and other organizations). All of these initiatives served to lay the groundwork for future fundraising appeals.
While they may not generate the most dollars, the first years after graduation are a critical time for defining the lifelong relationship that alumni will have with their alma maters. When students and young alumni understand the value of belonging to a community and are informed about the importance of giving back, they will continue to be connected, engaged, and supportive members of the alumni community for years to come.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Communicating with Young Alumni About Giving.
Deadlines are powerful motivators. There are few places that feel this more acutely than an annual giving office. As the end of the fiscal year approaches, teams are busy monitoring progress, preparing final appeals, and communicating with donors and volunteers. There’s a sense of urgency and only a limited amount of time remaining to do what needs to be done.
Each year, annual giving programs have 365 days to secure as many gifts and raise as much money as possible. While this might feel like a lot of time at the outset, that’s no longer the case during the final months of the fiscal year. What you do during this critical crunch time can determine whether or not your goals are achieved and your institution receives the resources it needs to fulfill its mission.
So here’s a fiscal year-end checklist—11 things you and your team can do to ensure success in the 11th hour of your annual giving campaign:
- Review your goals – Make sure everyone is on the same page, centered around the same priorities, and monitoring key performance metrics.
- Spend your budget – If you don’t use it, you might lose it from future budget cycles. Allocate remaining resources to testing new ideas and maximizing your results.
- Focus on last year’s donors – They’re the most likely prospects to give now. The three keys to a successful annual giving effort are retention, retention, and retention.
- Remind those with open pledges – Verbal commitments can be easy to forget. Send reminders via mail or email—and don’t be shy about picking up the phone if you don’t get a response!
- Try second asks – Go back to those who already made a gift in the current fiscal year and ask them to give again. This might be a good way for them to support something new or move into a giving society.
- Spend time with gift officers – Schedule time to sit down and review lists of the prospects they manage. Try to determine when and how to solicit each prospect for an annual fund gift. Ask what you can do to help. Offer to produce personalized year-end appeal letters on their behalf.
- Lobby your boards – Sometimes the most important volunteers and donors are the easiest to overlook when it comes to annual giving. Consider engaging these key stakeholders in year-end outreach.
- Update your signature and voicemail greeting – Include a reminder about the fiscal year-end date and offer instructions for those who might want to donate.
- Provide a “cheat sheet” to your colleagues and volunteers – Create a simple one-pager outlining the various ways people can make a gift. Include the URL for your online giving form, stock and wire transfer instructions, a phone number to call, and an email address to contact for assistance.
- Make sure your gift processing team is prepared – If all goes well, they should be busy. Share a copy of your appeal schedule and samples of any reply devices they can expect to receive. Think about ways you can show your appreciation (e.g., breakfast treats!) for their hard work and increased activity.
- Start planning for next year – Don’t wait until after the year ends to start thinking about what’s ahead. If you do, you’re bound to miss out on early opportunities.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Designing a Winning Annual Fund Plan.
Meeting with donors and prospects is some of the most important work that a development officer can do. Cultivating these relationships should be both meaningful for the donor and beneficial for the institution, maintaining a connection and leading to increased support over time. If you have a productive meeting with a prospect, the outcome can have a significant impact on your program. But one of the most important—and most overlooked—steps in the meeting process is sharing what was discussed with other members of your team.
That’s why the contact report is so important. It serves as a written summary of a development officer’s interaction with a prospect. The contact report records the purpose of a meeting and provides notable information about prospect interests and priorities that are uncovered during the conversation. When a development officer fails to make time to write a contact report, it can end up being a big loss for the institution.
Here are three reasons why you should always make contact reports a priority:
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 large group of people than having to rely on additional meetings or conversations. Distributing contact reports to colleagues is considered a best practice and can be accomplished simply by sending an email.
Second, the mere act of writing a contact report forces you to reflect back on your meeting and determine the critical elements. A good contact report is concise and only includes information that is relevant to advancing a prospect’s relationship with the institution. A contact report should not document what color shirt the prospect was wearing or that the server spilled orange juice on your lap. It should, however, communicate how the prospect feels about the direction of the institution, what campus events they recently attended, or which professor they liked best when they were 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, such as their business interests, leisure activities, or other philanthropic causes they support.
Third, contact reports are good for posterity. A development team may come and go, but a prospect’s relationship with an institution will often last a lifetime. Contact reports not only help new staff when they need to get up to speed quickly and learn about the prospects they’re responsible for cultivating, they can also help experienced staff recall important details and past events. They provide a useful point of reference when thinking about how to best engage a prospect moving forward.
The best time to write a contact report is immediately following the meeting, while the details 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. A good contact report 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, important details are sure to get lost. You may not have a chance to process the meeting thoroughly, colleagues may remain unaware of key elements, and future generations may never know about the information that you worked so hard to gather. To avoid this unfavorable outcome, the next time you wrap up a meeting with a prospect, be sure to prioritize writing the contact report.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar in Listening to Donors Strategically.
Hiring the right person for a job is one of the most important decisions a manager can make. It’s particularly important in annual giving, where staff turnover is a common problem. According to a recent AGN Salary & Professional Development Report, 38 percent of annual giving professionals are not satisfied in their current job and 41 percent have searched or interviewed for another job in the past year.
Hiring the wrong person can cause big problems down the line. Whether they’re unhappy or simply not cut out to do the job, a mismatch can leave you facing one of two undesirable situations. The employee will either quit – leaving you with the time-consuming task of recruiting their replacement – or they’ll stick around, becoming a drag on the organization.
So next time you find yourself hiring for an open position, try to keep these 12 tips in mind to ensure you select the right person to join your annual giving team:
- Recruit internally first. Don’t assume that you need to launch a long and exhaustive search. Sometimes the best candidate is right in front of your eyes.
- Look for someone who is running to something rather than running from something. Be suspicious of those who say negative things about their current employer.
- Beware of job hoppers. Calculate the average time they’ve spent at previous jobs and assume that’s how long they’ll stick around your organization.
- Consider their enthusiasm. Playing “hard to get” can make someone appealing at first, but it can also be a sign that your organization or the opportunity just doesn’t excite them.
- Find out who has mentored them. The people they look up to and whom they’ve learned from can be far more important than any talent or skill they possess.
- Don’t look for perfection. Those who appear to know what they don’t know are almost always more effective than those who appear to know everything.
- Value experience. Those who have been at it longer may not be smarter, but they probably have more experience making – and hopefully learning from – mistakes.
- Get input from others. Don’t carry the burden of making this decision on your shoulders alone. Ask a group of colleagues to interview candidates (or at least the finalists) too. If the majority shares a feeling (positive or negative) about someone, it can be indicative of how well they fit into with your office culture.
- Test their endurance. Don’t be afraid to invite candidates back for multiple interviews. Try a different setting (conference room, coffee shop, colleague’s office) each time. It’ll give you a chance to see them in different lights.
- Do the math. Create a scorecard that lists out the five or six success factors and rate candidates on a scale of 1-5 for each one. When everyone has been interviewed, see who comes out on top.
- Be thorough with references. And not just the ones they give you.
- Don’t rush into any decisions. A wise person once said, when it comes to building a successful team, you should “fire quick and hire slow.”
Above all else, trust your gut. Regardless of what your colleagues or your scorecard tell you, listen to that voice in your head. The above tips can help guide your decision-making process. But, when it comes to hiring the right person, you’re the one who’s going to have to live with your decision. If you’ve been thorough and thoughtful during the recruitment process and, in the end, someone simply feels like the right person for the job, then chances are, they probably are.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Recruiting & Retaining All-Star Staff.
While crowdfunding has found its place in the fundraising toolkit of some non-profits, many annual giving professionals at colleges, universities, and independent schools are still trying to figure out how and where it fits into their mix. Part of the challenge is that at educational institutions, fundraising efforts are often geared toward existing constituents, namely alumni and parents. This is especially true for annual gifts.
AGN research shows that for a typical educational institution, approximately 3 out of 4 gifts received throughout the year will be from alumni and and parents, with the remainder coming from groups such as corporations, foundations, employees, fans, and other friends. However, in the case of crowdfunding campaigns, data shows that the opposite can be true. It’s not unusual for just 1 out of 4 gifts made to crowdfunding projects to be from alumni and parents while the vast majority come from other groups. Why is this?
Part of the reason may be that alumni and parents are often preconditioned to the needs and priorities of the institution as a whole. In fact, many schools start talking with their constituents about giving as soon as they step foot on campus. And while projects that are very specific in nature might be of interest to some alumni and parents, they likely won’t resonate with the entire community. Crowdfunding campaigns can be very effective for these type of niche fundraising efforts since they depend on the network and advocacy of those who have a special interest in a project’s success.
UCLA used crowdfunding to raise money to help maintain and restore classic Laurel and Hardy titles in its film and television library by targeting fans—many of whom were outside of the university’s traditional alumni and parent community. The campaign included a combination of personal outreach to Laurel and Hardy fan clubs, mass e-solicitations to previous donors, and volunteer-led peer-to-peer outreach to push donors to the crowdfunding site. Expenses were kept at a minimum, with only $200 spent on paid Facebook advertising to spread the news about the campaign.
The campaign also offered unique donor reward levels that appealed directly to the Laurel and Hardy fan base. All donors received first access to view the recently-restored film “That’s That,” while donors who made gifts of $50 and $100 received acknowledgement on social media and tickets to the opening screening of the film. Donors at progressively higher levels were able to secure reserved seating for the screening, a tour of The Archive, and even have their name added to the film’s credits with a gift of $5,000 or more.
According to Taylor Stayton, UCLA’s Director of Crowdfunding, the Laurel and Hardy campaign was a big success. More than 300 donors made a gift, and $50,000 was raised for the restoration efforts, surpassing the original fundraising goal of $45,000. The campaign also drew in a diverse international group of donors, many of whom were not traditional alumni or parents, with more than half being first-time donors to UCLA.
If you’re looking to engage a broad audience, it’s true that crowdfunding may not be the right strategy. But for more unique, specialized campaigns that will appeal to donors outside of your typical base, using this modern approach may be just the way to gather the crowd you need to achieve results.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Maximizing Your Crowdfunding Campaigns.
If you’ve worked in annual giving for long, chances are that you’ve received a request from a major gift officer to have a prospect excluded from receiving annual fund appeals.
There are many circumstances for which this is a very valid request – like when someone has specifically asked not to receive appeals or when a prospect is going to be solicited for a major gift in the next few months. There are other times, however, when it’s not valid – like when the gift officer claims that they’re developing a relationship with a prospect and fear that an annual appeal will derail that effort.
One of the fundamental differences between annual and major giving is time. Annual giving campaigns are relatively short with the primary goal of maximizing participation. When they’re complete, you get to learn from your missteps and (if there weren’t too many) try things again for the next 12 months.
Major giving, on the other hand, is a much slower process with the goal of producing a few significant donations that will have a major and lasting impact. It can take years to cultivate a major gift and, when missteps are made, you don’t often get a second chance.
If you look up the word exclude, you find synonyms like alienate, omit, segregate, reject, disenfranchise, and marginalize. Whether we work in annual or major giving, it’s likely we don’t want any of these things for our prospects.
So, the next time a major gift officer asks to have a prospect excluded from annual appeals because they are working on developing a relationship, politely remind them that giving makes a relationship stronger. Then, offer to work with them to produce a personal appeal – something that makes the prospect feel noticed and special, something that makes them feel part of something important, something that makes them feel included.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Transitioning Annual Donors to Major Donors.
AGN is pleased to announce the winners of its recent Best in Annual Giving Challenge. After reviewing more than 300 entries from institutions around the world, a panel of AGN’s faculty selected the “10 Best” based on overall quality, uniqueness, and level of innovation.
Thank you to everyone who participated in the Challenge and congratulations to all of our nominees and winners. We’re already looking forward to the next challenge this fall!
Winners of AGN’s Best in Annual Giving Challenge
- William & Mary used nostalgia to appeal to each of its alumni classes by sending segmented emails that highlighted the most popular movie, album, and pop culture item from the summer of the recipient’s freshman year.
- UNC Charlotte texted recent graduates with a brief survey and used responses to drive solicitation and engagement strategies.
- Smith College promoted monthly giving through their print magazine and as a first ask in their phonathon scripts.
- Washington & Jefferson College launched a special challenge via email during what is typically a slow time for giving day activity.
- Harvard Business School placed pop-up ads with a “countdown meter” on its alumni website during the final month of its fiscal year to encourage year-end support.
- The University of St. Thomas asked current recurring gift donors to increase their donations by offering a special edition pint glass from a local brewery as a premium.
- Boise State University quickly organized an emergency crowdfunding campaign to support a remote research center that was damaged by wildfires.
- Penn State College of Medicine sent an email appeal that was cleverly disguised as a stewardship piece to reactivate lapsed donors.
- Caltech ran its successful giving day on a budget of less than $500.
- Williams College offered a matching challenge where each donor’s gift was increased based on the number of hours they put into community service.
Search for these winning ideas and over 300 more in AGN’s Sample Library
All of the Challenge entries can now be viewed in the AGN Sample Library, a new resource where AGN Members can search for and download examples and templates from hundreds of annual giving programs around the world. It includes donor appeals, caller scripts, gift acknowledgements, volunteer materials, and much more. Many of the samples feature additional information about the initiative such as goals and results.