AGN regularly publishes articles to help advancement professionals understand and address many of the industry’s most important topics and trends. Filled with tips and examples, these articles often feature AGN members and other academic institutions from around the world.
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For those who work in annual giving, things are always moving. There’s always an upcoming appeal to produce, another phone call to make, or a thank you note to write. There’s always a prospect who has yet to connect (or reconnect) with your institution. There are always reports to run, pledgers to remind, and volunteers to support.
Even though the annual fund doesn’t stop, it’s important to pause now and then in order to hit the reset button. And there’s no better time to do that than at the beginning of a new fiscal year. With each cycle comes the opportunity to make a fresh start. And while there will likely be big things you’ll want to accomplish in the months ahead, it’s often the little things you do in the first week or two of a new fiscal year that can really set the tone for a successful campaign.
So, before you close the books and head out for that well-deserved summer vacation, here are 7 small – but significant – things you can do to get the new year started on the right note.
- Take a moment to let your colleagues in advancement services know how much you appreciate their help and support throughout the year. Bring them bagels and coffee one morning. They entered a lot of data and processed a lot of gifts to complete the cycle of your appeal efforts.
- Reach out to a few peer institutions to find out how they did in donors and dollars compared to the year before. Ask each to share a success and a failure from the past 12 months. Offer the same in return.
- Call at least five of your most committed volunteers. Let them be the first to hear the year’s final results. They’ll appreciate the inside scoop.
- Send handwritten thank you notes to your top ten leadership donors. Make sure they know that they are among the relative few who provide a large portion of the annual fund’s total support.
- Calculate the ROI (total revenue – expenses / expenses) for your phonathon and direct mail program. Think of ways you can improve each next year. Share them with your boss.
- Put together a simple email to all of your alumni and donors wishing them a “Happy New Year!” In it, highlight a few of the exciting things that happened on campus as a result of annual giving. Check out BU’s postcard (below) for inspiration.
- If you haven’t already, get started on that annual fund plan. Remember that one of the secrets to annual giving success is to plan your work and work your plan.
When you find yourself at the beginning of a new fundraising year, be sure to stop. Take a break and clean the slate. Because when you come back, it starts all over again – and you’ll be ready.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Planning for a New Fiscal Year.
Successful fundraising campaigns always capitalize on deadlines to create a sense of urgency. Natural deadlines can be found at certain times, such as at the end of the calendar year for tax purposes or at the end of the fiscal year for donor stewardship. It’s no secret that December and June tend to be the busiest times for advancement shops—and when most see large spikes in donor counts and dollars.
Anticipating these busy periods, institutions plan their efforts accordingly. Annual giving programs often ramp up their calling programs or drop their biggest mailings of the year in late November and then again around May. Many programs also send more email solicitations and renewal reminders in the final weeks leading up to year-end.
Conversely, other periods in fundraising campaigns are naturally slow. In educational fundraising, these periods often occur in the winter months following a busy holiday season or in the summer when donors are enjoying vacations and a slower pace.
The phenomenon of peaks and valleys within the fundraising cycle is not limited to the annual calendar. Multiyear capital fundraising campaigns tend to see spikes in commitments during the silent phase and after the public announcement is made, but they often hit a slump after more than half of the goal has been met. Direct mail efforts typically see their highest return two to three weeks after hitting the mailbox, with gifts trickling in steadily before the final gifts arrive nearly eight weeks after the appeal drops. Giving days, which have become a staple event for many institutions, tend to see the most activity right after launch and in their final hours, but these initiatives often stall in the afternoon hours.
Being aware of, and getting in sync with, these cycles is a critically important part of running any successful fundraising campaign. It’s what can give you a slight edge and help generate incremental gains. Busy times require extra staff attention and resources, and mistakes during these high-volume periods can be extremely costly. Slow times, by contrast, may require a bit more effort in order to capture the attention of donors and motivate them to take action.
Washington & Jefferson College realized that it needed to be creative to boost donor activity during what is typically a slow time for its giving day. After a review of previous years’ data, the annual giving team added an unpublicized challenge to the schedule for its fourth annual day of giving. The time frame for announcing the challenge would be flexible, but the team assumed it would be necessary to drive activity during the midafternoon. An email announcing a new challenge match for the next 100 gifts was sent at 2 pm, and in less than an hour those 100 gifts were secured. The new midday challenge helped the team to maintain a high level of donor activity that resulted in a record-breaking giving day.
It’s easy to make plans in anticipation of times that are busy, but driving more donor activity during times that are historically slow can be a challenge. In the absence of natural deadlines, fundraisers need innovative strategies—whether during the quieter months of the annual campaign or during the midday hours of the giving day. Being prepared for all of the peaks and valleys will help you build a road map for your team’s success.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Developing a Giving Day Email Strategy.
If you’re like so many other advancement professionals, you may feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that’s expected of you. And your constituents more than likely feel the same way. Always having too much to do—and not enough time to do it—is what makes it particularly special when someone is willing to give a significant amount of his or her time to help your organization.
That’s why, when Boston University launched its first public capital fundraising campaign, it set out not only to raise significant philanthropic support, but also to utilize creative strategies for engaging its entire community in the effort. While many alumni and parents would participate in the campaign by making gifts, involving students presented a larger challenge. Knowing that most students would not be in the position to make significant monetary gifts, the university found a way for these key constituents to contribute to the campaign without opening their wallets.
Soon after the campaign launched, BU students collectively made a pledge to complete one million hours of community service before the campaign ended. To put this into perspective, the million-hour goal is equivalent to one person volunteering nonstop for over 100 years. The idea was inspired by a commitment from the then-student union president who, prior to the launch of the campaign, pledged one hour of community service for each undergraduate student.
As the campaign got underway, students were able to participate through a variety of volunteer programs, including the student-run Community Service Center, the First-Year Student Outreach Project, Alternative Spring Break, and any service performed in conjunction with Greek life, religious groups, clubs or student organizations. The administration even developed a mobile app that allowed students to log their service hours in real time and track overall progress toward the goal.
In campaigns—as well as in life—the investment of personal time and talent can be invaluable. Measuring these investments as part of an overall campaign goal provides a more comprehensive appraisal of a campaign’s true impact. Additionally, finding opportunities to harvest time in productive and meaningful ways can offset some of your own time and resource limitations, while planting the seed for other forms of support in the future.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Maximizing Annual Giving in Comprehensive Campaigns.
When you’re stewarding your donors, should you also ask for their next gift? Some development professionals would say no, arguing that donor stewardship should always be distinct from a solicitation. Saying “thank you” and sharing the impact of a donor’s past support needs to stand apart. Asking for additional support (or even hinting at the need for it) may only confuse donors and make them think your appreciation is not genuine.
Other fundraisers might say that excluding an ask from any communication or interaction with past donors wastes an opportunity with a captive audience. The very function of stewardship is to celebrate past support and prepare donors for their next gift. No one is going to understand the ongoing needs and urgency facing your institution more than your recent donors.
The right approach may vary, which is why it’s more important to focus on how you might incorporate a solicitation into your stewardship communications than on if you include an ask at all. With that in mind, here are a few guidelines to follow when thinking about the right approach:
- Start your communication by expressing gratitude. Make it strong and sincere so that your donors know they’re valued.
- Make the stewardship direct and personal. Use the word “you” as much as possible so that donors feel a strong connection to the institution’s well-being.
- Describe the impact of past support. Tell stories about specific individuals who have benefited from donors’ giving. Remember that it’s not about the money; it’s about what the money does.
- When you do make an ask, keep it subtle. Simply mentioning that there’s an ongoing need for support and including a reply device or link to a giving form can go a long way.
Penn State’s College of Medicine recognizes that including an ask in stewardship communications can be a powerful means for generating additional support. Their director of annual giving and alumni relations recently sent an email to lapsed alumni and friend donors with a subject line reading, “You’re the best.” The body of the message outlined a few specific ways donor support has made a difference and included a link to the online giving form. The email closed by letting recipients know that they would receive a mailing soon asking for their renewed support. The e-appeal turned out to be one of the year’s most successful campaigns for the institution by accomplishing two goals—expressing gratitude to nearly 1,000 past donors while also generating more than $4,000 in additional gifts. You can view a sample of the email here.
Thanking donors for their support is a crucial part of good stewardship, but your communications with donors can also open the door to future gifts. When donors feel their gifts matter—especially when you share exactly how those gifts have helped—they’re more likely to give again. So what better time to make an ask than when you’re letting donors know how much you value their support?
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Creating an Annual Giving Stewardship Plan.
Although texting has long been widely accepted for one-to-one communication, organizations have only recently begun to incorporate it into their customer contact strategies. Restaurants text when your table is ready, phone companies text when your bill is due, and pharmacies text when it’s time to refill a prescription. In a sea of robocalls, emails, and social media posts, sending a text can be a great way to make an important message stand out. But organizations need to be careful not to make their mass texts seem intrusive.
In fundraising, many nonprofits have had success implementing text-to-give campaigns where donors send a message to have money automatically donated through their phone billing service. Some of the most notable examples in recent years have been organized around disaster relief efforts or political campaigns. However, new technologies and services have emerged recently that allow organizations to think beyond this approach.
Many educational institutions have been slow to try texting and integrate it into their ongoing engagement and solicitation programs. In general, school advancement offices often lag in adopting new tactics and technologies, but in this case, staff may simply not know how or where to begin.
If you’re thinking about implementing texting into your broad-based donor communication efforts, here are a few considerations to help you get started:
- Make sure you have permission. Create opportunities for donors to opt-in for text-based messages by including the option on reply cards, online gift forms, and phone scripts. In cases where permission has not been established, give constituents advanced notice of the texting effort through other channels. Sending an email (or two!) and mentioning it in a phone call prior to the planned text outreach will help ensure that the communications do not feel intrusive.
- Plan outreach around key dates and deadlines. Give meaning and purpose to your texts to avoid having them seem random and out of the blue. Coordinate them around special challenge campaigns, giving days, or the end of a calendar or fiscal year. If the purpose of your text is to acknowledge or thank a donor, make sure it is sent as soon as the gift is received. Texting can also be a great way to remind donors that their pledge payments are due or that a year has elapsed since their last gift.
- Include critical information in the first text. Initial messages should be transparent about the purpose for the text. Be clear who it’s from by providing the name of the department or person texting, in case the recipient wants to make a follow-up call with questions or concerns. Be sure to allow recipients to opt out of receiving future texts.
- Keep messages simple and brief. Make sure your messages are direct and to the point. Try to keep texts to fewer than 40 words. Avoid unnecessary words and superfluous information. This may be harder than it sounds. As numerous authors have observed, stories don’t always need to be long, but making them shorter takes more time.
- Don’t overdo it. Minimize the number of texts you send to any individual within a given time period. Texting may be a new and wonderfully effective way for your organization to communicate with its donors, but you need to be respectful and cautious. For many people, texting represents a “personal space,” so they’ll be quick to opt out of future communications from any organization that oversteps its bounds.
Texting now plays a significant role in the everyday lives of individuals as well as organizations. For educational institutions and their advancement shops, it offers a simple and direct means of one-to-many communications. With the right strategy in place, texting offers an efficient, important touch point for prospects and donors that can have a positive impact on their relationship with your institution and ultimately on your fundraising results.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Texting in Annual Giving.
In today’s increasingly digital world, social media is a critical resource for communicating with constituents. From retail stores to political campaigns, organizations that seek to engage the public must have robust social media strategies. Educational institutions are no exception—indeed, the advancement team’s task is to meet people where they are to engage them with the school’s mission.
Annual giving programs can leverage social media to enhance their direct appeal efforts, broaden their donor base, and tell compelling stories about the impact of philanthropy. But one of the challenges they often face is that they don’t “own” the institution’s social media accounts. Instead, to deliver content to followers, they have to depend on campus partners who have differing interests and priorities.
For example, the alumni relations department may oversee the school’s alumni Facebook page and use it to promote regional events, or the university relations office may manage the institution’s Twitter handle to reach prospective students. Being responsible for reaching different types of audiences, these partners may be hesitant to include fundraising messages as part of their overall social media content.
To take advantage of the limited real estate, annual giving programs must be intentional in their use of social media as part of the larger strategy. Here are a few quick tips for making the most out of your social media presence:
- Tell stories. Social media channels provide many opportunities to demonstrate the importance of philanthropy through compelling storytelling. Host a Twitter #AMA (ask me anything) with a lab team researching an exciting topic, share a series of Instagram stories profiling a day in the life of a scholarship recipient, or go live on Facebook to share a commencement or convocation ceremony. Often, one compelling visual or story can be more meaningful than an infographic full of data.
- Build a sense of urgency. Social media attention spans are short, so annual giving programs can leverage these tools to drive immediate action. Post reminders about key dates, like giving day, the end of the calendar or fiscal year, or other milestones. Social media content is a great way to remind constituents that a key deadline is looming.
- Recruit advocates. User-generated content speaks volumes more than organizational posts—think about the recent “Share a Coke” campaign. Recruiting and training social media ambassadors, whether they are influential posters or just dedicated volunteers, can maximize the impact of the message.
- Spark conversation. Encourage engagement by strategically planning content that sparks interest and elicits a response. Ask questions, post polls, and invite followers to share memories. Host a throwback photo competition or ask alumni to share a piece of advice for incoming freshmen. As an added bonus, inviting users to engage in the conversation enables you to collect important feedback and data.
- Don’t lead with an ask. Social media isn’t meant to be a tool for solicitation, but it can complement other solicitation strategies. For example, profile a student who recently signed a solicitation mail piece. There’s no question that giving days and crowdfunding campaigns can be exciting social media touch points. But, in most cases, focusing too much on an ask can lead to decreased engagement.
It’s not always easy to put together a social media strategy for annual giving, especially when annual fund teams depend on campus partners to share content on their channels. Teams can overcome this challenge by telling compelling stories, inviting conversation, and recruiting an army of advocates. Creating a comprehensive social media strategy takes effort, but it’s worth the investment to compete for attention in today’s increasingly interconnected world.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Using Social Media to Solicit Alumni.
There are no second chances when it comes to making a great first impression. Yet at most institutions, the first impression future alumni have of the development office is a request to complete a senior class gift pledge card. Students don’t typically understand why they’re being asked to support their alma maters, especially when the expenses of the real world are about to come knocking.
As enrollment continues to climb at colleges and universities, making a strong case for support with the next generation of alumni is critical to growing overall participation rates. Establishing a culture of philanthropy builds the pipeline for future investment, and there’s no better time to educate students about the impact of alumni support than before they graduate.
So where do you start? The best time to begin engaging students is when they are just setting foot onto your campus. To kick off a strong student philanthropy program with your incoming students, consider integrating the following tactics into your development program:
First, recognize where students are getting their information. New students are looking for ways to get involved and learn more about their school’s culture, which is why having an active development presence at the activities fair or at student affairs events is critical to making a positive introduction. Placing ads that highlight the role of philanthropy in the school newspaper or in a first-year “look book” are other ways to raise philanthropic awareness. Students often turn to their peers for information, which is why building a volunteer group that promotes advancement activities can help create awareness.
Next, consider how you brand your efforts so that your message resonates. Rice University rebranded its student philanthropy week with the name “Rice Owls Give Back” to create campus pride around the school’s culture of philanthropy. The advancement team also distributed T-shirts that students could wear on a certain day during the week to receive free coffee on campus. The campaign generated excitement among the students and also provided walking publicity for the advancement team’s efforts.
Continue to raise awareness by hosting your own events. Having a development presence at other events is a great idea, but it doesn’t compare to the benefits of designing your own gatherings where philanthropic messaging is at the forefront. These events require institutional investment, but they also build connections among students and develop students’ affinity for their class—which will help with future reunion fundraising efforts.
Finally, leverage technology with your student population in mind. Having a strong Facebook presence may make sense for older alumni, but teens and young adults more frequently use other social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Consider engagement opportunities that meet students where they are, such as doing a Snapchat scavenger hunt with images of places on campus that have benefited from philanthropy. Involving students in social media “takeover” days on Instagram can give alumni a glimpse of current campus life while helping students understand how their personal stories encourage alumni to stay connected and give back.
It’s never too early for students to learn the importance of giving back. That’s why they should hear from you long before they’re getting ready to graduate. Reaching out to students in their first year on campus is an easy way to introduce them to your advancement efforts, and it serves as a critical initial step toward developing lifelong supporters.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Engaging Students in Philanthropy During All 4 Years.
Asking for money doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Even professional fundraisers struggle sometimes when it comes to soliciting donations. This presents an extra challenge for institutions that have a large number of prospects and a limited number of gift officers to reach out to them. Fortunately, volunteers can be a good solution to this problem and a great way to expand your advancement team’s bandwidth.
Research shows that institutions that engage volunteers in their fundraising efforts achieve higher levels of participation and generate more revenue. Volunteers can be effective solicitors for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they can make a personal case for support based on their own investment in an institution. Also, donors often trust a “peer” more than they would a member of the institution’s paid staff.
To benefit the most from fundraising volunteers, it’s important to identify the right people to support your efforts. The wrong volunteers take more time and energy from the advancement staff than they return to the organization in fundraising results. When that happens, nobody wins.
As you recruit others to expand your fundraising reach, try to identify volunteers who will enhance your efforts rather than hamper them. With that goal in mind, here are five characteristics to look for in good fundraising volunteers:
- They are donors themselves. Not every volunteer needs to be a major gift donor, but it’s important that they are already supporting the institution consistently. Their own experiences and giving will not only help them to see things through the eyes of their prospects but will also empower them to use the term “join me” when making an ask.
- They have been recommended by others. Current volunteers can be a great source of leads for others to recruit for your team. Your volunteers will know who has the clout in their class to serve as the most effective reunion giving chair or who is the most active on social media to be the best ambassador for a giving day. Asking for recommendations can provide a wealth of information on who might be worth approaching.
- They are employed in fields that require client interaction. People who work in sales are often good fundraisers because they are already comfortable making an ask. Individuals who have client-facing professional responsibilities also have the communication skills necessary to work with your prospects.
- They are involved with other organizations in your community. Board service at other institutions can provide insight into whether volunteers already have some experience with peer solicitation. These volunteers also understand the fundraising process and can typically make a strong case for institutional needs when speaking to potential donors.
- They have raised their hands. Some of the best fundraising volunteers are the ones who actively seek out the role. Since asking for money is not easy, volunteers who tell you they want to be part of your team are usually already comfortable with soliciting their peers. With this in mind, make sure to offer regular and visible opportunities for volunteers to self-identify.
Relational fundraising can be highly effective in motivating donors to increase their support and help your team expand its reach. The most successful fundraising volunteers can supercharge your annual giving efforts, but you need to know how to find them. Recruiting the right people for your fundraising team can take some time, but the return on that investment is likely to be worth it.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Facilitating Peer-to-Peer Solicitations.
Data-driven decision-making is central to successful annual giving programs. Team members must be able to track progress toward goals, analyze project performance, and assess trends over time to maximize budget, staffing, and results. But facing handfuls of reports, dozens of data points, and sometimes-conflicting indicators of annual giving program health can be overwhelming.
The challenge is that there are infinite ways to interpret annual giving data. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Reports, access to different data points, and metrics vary greatly by institution and often change over time even at the same institution. When faced with dozens of facts and figures across multiple spreadsheets, analysis paralysis can set in, and it can be tough to decide how to move forward. So how should you proceed?
Here are a few key steps for maintaining your reporting focus:
First, conduct an audit of your current reports and data points. Determine what reports exist in the database of record and any reporting or data visualization tools you have access to. Partner with development information systems and prospect strategy colleagues to collect a full snapshot of these reports. Don’t forget to consider reporting available through third-party applications or services, such as your email software or phonathon vendor.
Next, assess each report by its ability to guide decision-making. Think about key considerations like your production calendar, budget allocation, and staffing resources. Do the data provide a sense of which initiatives should stop, start, or continue? Is it clear which projects were a success and which weren’t? Are any reports not used? If so, consider what pieces of information could be added to make them useful, or if they should be dropped altogether from production and consideration.
Third, align reports with key performance indicators (KPIs). Annual giving priorities change over time, and reports should reflect those changes. For example, if revenue is the top priority, but staff members are still gauging the success of a mail piece by the number of gifts received, it’s time for a revamp. Ensure the most-used reports reflect progress to goal, year-over-year results, and key trends for the most important metrics.
Finally, consider the end user. A report for a vice president should reflect different priorities than a report for a staff member charged with building a digital solicitation strategy. Consider the intended audience for each report, and explore opportunities to combine reports that reflect similar data, condense reports that have too much information, or share reports with others in the organization who could benefit from access to the information.
The key to avoiding analysis paralysis is to impose some order in the universe. Get rid of reports and data points that no longer serve the team. Add fields or charts where needed to get the full picture of progress. Focusing on your main goals—and the strategies that drive their progress—can ensure the team spends time on the right initiatives. At the end of the day, you manage what you measure, and measuring the right data points can guide you on the path to success.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Annual Fund Dashboards & Reports.
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.