Realistic Planning: Cornerstone to Sustainable Annual Giving

[amazon text=Amazon&asin=0968797814]In the annual giving arena, staffers are continually expected to grow donor participation and engagement. It is important, though, to set thoughtful, reasonable goals for your annual fund goals. This piece will provide a cursory examination of the component goals from a higher education non-profit perspective, but many (if not all non-alumni) pieces will be applicable to annual giving staff persons in any industry.

Goal One – Raising $X per year

This is goal one for a reason – you should always have you eye on this one when planning midyear course corrections. That phrasing is intentional – for all the strategic planning undertaken, you will undoubtedly find yourself making midyear changes to your annual fund plans. Perhaps a last minute fundraiser was added to the calendar by higher leadership, or your annual communications plan was disrupted by some major event.

While it is easy to break down $X into monthly goals, that rarely translates into the actual monthly work product. In Higher Education, there are two primary months with most of the annual fund income – December and the last calendar month of your fiscal year (mine is June). That’s not to say that the other 10 months of the year are quiet – you should “Always Be Asking” and over time you’ll see donation patterns in your constituencies. Donor X always gives in May, in honor of the graduating class. Donor Y always makes a gift when visiting campus at Homecoming. The lion’s share, however, will come in for the two tax deadlines, one that is the donors and the other that is your institutions.

To establish goal one, you need to look honestly at your past financial history, and consider changes in the landscape from year to year. Ideally, the annual giving and overall development staff should have major input in establishing the goal. In some cases, however, higher leadership may have established the goal based on institutional needs. This places the development staff in a precarious position if the goal is placed too far beyond reach.

Goal Two – Connect X number of new donors

To be sustainable, your institution will need to add a certain amount of fresh base to replace those have changed status or philanthropic goals. This is another important goal, because it will add to your fundraising base. If done well, you can add more new donors than the number of donors who were lost from the prior year. It is important to note, though, that these new donors typically will not come in as invested as the donors you will have lost – donors whom you have cultivated and made more active.

This goal represents a new field in which development staff will toil – planting the seeds of engagement, caring for the crop, and ultimately reaping the harvest.

Goal Three – Grow current donor support

If done properly, this goal can offer a considerable return on the invested time. It is important to frequently examine your ask amount and make sure that it represents a reasonable ask. Donor X has given $100 per year for ten years – has she ever been asked to give $150 or $200? Would she be offended if asked for more? This ask would represent a 50 or 100% increase, respectively – does that make sense for Donor X. Staffers will want to spend time evaluating Donor X for the potential to increase the gift. Donor Y has been on an upward trend for five years, with annual gifts of $25, $45, $55, $95, and $110 – are you prepared to ask him for $150+? In this example, Donor Y has been steadily increasing – are you prepared to challenge him for more? Again, you’ll want to take a close look at this relationship to determine whether this ask is a reasonable one.

The real trouble here comes in terms of scale. If you are asking 100 donors, you should be able to review rather quickly donor history to determine an appropriately challenging, but not absurd, ask amount. What happens, though, when you need to ask 1000 donors? 10,000 donors? In these large scale cases, it may help to use Excel to make a comparison of a couple pieces of information – last gift amount, lifetime gifts, largest single gift, and average gift.

For example, in a recent ask, I examined donors who had given more than $250 in their lifetime, who had also made a gift in any of the last ten fiscal years but not the current year. I broke the list into two major groups – recent donors who had lapsed (within the past two or three years) and more distantly lapsed donors. With the recently lapsed, I tailored the ask by examining closely the last gift and the average gift. If the last was greater than the average, I asked for more than last gift by at least 15%. If the last gift was below the average gift, I examined the donor history to look at what caused larger gifts in the past – more often than not, a special gift was made to a campaign or program that identified an affinity for the donor. In many of these cases, I asked for the average gift, hoping to improve the overall annual fund gift from the donor.

With the more distantly lapsed, I asked for a reactivation gift based on our celebration of being in operation for 135 years, so $135. The goal of the distant lapsed donors was twofold – reactivate, and verify that we still had good information. Reactivation can be challenging – thankfully I managed to raise quite a bit more than the cost of mailing reactivation asks. We also gleaned some valuable information from the mailing – a number of new addresses, and unfortunately a couple of deceased donors.


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Hopefully, this discussion will serve as a guidepost for understanding what I consider to be my big three goals each year for the annual fund. I invite your feedback and comments.

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