Lessons From Our Most Successful Annual Fund Campaign Ever

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“Well they can give, but why should they?”

Anyone who works in annual giving has been asked this question, or a version of it, at least a thousand times. We all know that our constituents are capable of giving. The key issue is never the “can,” but always the “should.”

When I began my role as director of annual giving at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I was charged with this very important question. As we toyed around with answers, the same idea continued to pop up—they shouldn’t. Not in the sense that no one should give, but in the sense that they shouldn’t give until we provide them with the right reasons and opportunities to do so.

Although simple on the surface, it truly was an “aha!” moment for our team. Our next step was to have a good, old-fashioned brainstorm. We now needed to find our reasons and our opportunities.

 

We went back and forth on what we thought was important to our institution, to our constituents, to anyone, really. This got us nowhere. Everyone in the room had an opinion and some anecdotal evidence that would support his or her idea. So, like any good organization, we decided there was only one way to get the information we needed: data!

We analyzed pages of giving histories and historical designation trends, and a few patterns started to appear. The first was that people gave most to areas that you could attach yourself to—clubs, sports teams, buildings or areas of campus, and academic departments. The second was that people also gave most to things they could see themselves doing, needing, or creating—internships, scholarships, and experiential learning opportunities.

Because we couldn’t market every one of those areas (our printing budget isn’t THAT big), we needed to find a way to group them into buckets. We eventually whittled it down to five priority areas: Scholarship and Financial Aid, Career Services and Internships, Academics and Global Education, Student Life, and Facilities and Technology.

 

Now came the hard part: showing our constituents why they should give.

Another question, another brainstorm. We began to talk through why someone should make a gift to the annual fund, and we kept coming back to the idea that the annual fund supports everything.

Literally anything that happens on campus is, in some small way, affected by gifts to the annual fund. In a sense, we help to sponsor all the tiny moments on campus each day. The first to talk was our AVP: “It’s pretty incredible, all the incredible moments sponsored by the annual fund.” That was it! Incredible moments sponsored by the annual fund. This was the reason to give, and the way we could market our opportunities.

 

It often feels like the annual fund is boxed into a corner with how to “sell” our “product.” Because the annual fund supports everything, you can’t really sell anything in particular. But what we found was that, instead of being boxed in, we actually had a bottomless treasure chest of incredible happenings to market at any given time. Anything could be an incredible moment. Now, we had a whole year to curate the best moments within our priority areas, present them to our constituents, and hope that one stuck before May 31st (the end of our fiscal year)!

Not to pull a Seinfeld on anyone, but yada yada yada, we finished off fiscal year 2015 with a bang. We had the most donors to our institution in nine years and our largest annual fund total ever. It was the beginnings of a sustainable and scalable model for our fund.

As we move into the next fiscal year, we hope to use all of this new data on donor interests to tailor our stories and target our constituents with opportunities that match their interests. We plan to eventually develop a larger profile of giving options to better steward our donors and enhance the giving process as a whole. We’re only just getting started, but we’ve already seen ways we can improve on this strategy during fiscal year 2016.

Every institution has its own priority areas that make the school unique and appealing to its constituent base. And I’m sure that incredible moments happen every day on campuses across the country. Let those stories speak for themselves. All of your donors can give. You just need to show them why they should.

Learn more about boosting alumni participation in EverTrue’s whitepaper, “Dollars Over Donors”:


Josh Foladare is the director of annual giving at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. When he is not helping raise money to make the colleges great, you can find him brainstorming new ways to explain what he does at work to his friends and playing with his two rescue dogs. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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