January 30, 2015

Best practices for annual-giving programs


Maya Gasuk

Maya Gasuk

After a few years of flat or down results in both dollars and number of donors, everyone is anxious to get their annual fund growing again. This pressure to see growth and make goal can cause annual funds to react to the environment, rather than manage it. 

As an annual-fund director for 10 years, I learned the key to success was staying focused on the essentials.

Annual-giving programs have seen a dramatic shift as the number of initiatives has increased, the number of outreach tools has grown (segmented and personalized direct mail, email solicitations, online giving, automated phone-a-thons) and the technological requirements to support those initiatives has become more sophisticated.

Annual giving needs to relate well with the increased level of personal engagement and solicitation efforts taking place across the organization.

It now takes more time, attention to detail and careful planning to ensure each of these programs fit together effectively. 

Even with a strong program in place, I found the greatest payoff came from looking deeply to evaluate the program comprehensively and strategically.

Each year, by introducing one strategic, well-planned, high-impact change, we were able to see more than 10 percent growth annually.

Over time, I compiled a list of best practices to help me evaluate my program and stay focused on the essentials:

Clear, measurable and documented goals and results are in place for each program and activity.

  • The annual fund has a master timeline of activity, with staff responsibility assigned and sufficient lead time to implement new initiatives.
  • An annual work plan is in place with specific dollar and donor-based outcomes.
  • Clear ownership for results is in place for each activity and goal.
  • All goals roll up to the overall dollar and donor goals for the program.
  • Clear metrics are in place to evaluate cost, return and effectiveness.
  • Reports are available to staff to allow for effective evaluation of progress, and staff are empowered to make program changes based on data.
  • Benchmarking takes place at least mid-year, if not quarterly.
  • A formal final report based on the work plan is created, reviewed and discussed before plans are finalized for the coming year.

The annual fund is maintaining healthy growth in participation.

  • Donor-retention rates are carefully monitored and stay strong.
  • Dollars received from donor upgrades outpace downgrades for net dollar growth.
  • Enough new donors are acquired each year to compensate for natural donor attrition.

The annual fund has a strategic focus to manage the dollar goal.

  • The annual fund has a gift table in place that includes potential donors specifically identified for the top 20 percent of the pyramid.
  • Managing gift-table progress is a priority for the director of the annual fund, the board and director of development.
  • There is a strong commitment to personal solicitation for high-level annual-fund support, and it involves asking people to consider an increase.

The annual fund is a visible priority across the organization.

  • Leaders and staff are able to articulate the case for annual-fund support easily.
  • The annual fund is a visible priority in all fundraising outreach-campaign, annual reports, website, public remarks, events, board members.
  • Other program areas have goals that support the annual fund.

The annual fund has highly visible and engaged volunteer leadership.

  • The annual fund has a core group of volunteers willing to invest time and energy, and there is 100 percent participation by leadership in supporting the annual fund.
  • There is broad volunteer representation by age, region and interest area.
  • Volunteers have role descriptions, set reporting schedules to show results of their work and training is provided; materials are helpful and staff-volunteer partnership is clear.
  • Volunteers are able to provide feedback on an annual basis about their experience.

Annual fund gifts are stewarded well.

  • Accurate, timely and personal acknowledgement for annual fund gifts is provided.
  • Donor records are maintained rigorously.
  • The use of annual-fund gifts is clearly articulated to donors in a compelling way.

The annual fund has strong leadership and management.

  • The manager of the annual fund has a clear understanding of annual-fund operation and program details, is analytical and comfortable with technology.
  • The manager of the annual fund uses planning, organization and communication skills to reinforce a culture of creativity, energy and optimism.
  • Documented processes and procedures are in place for direct mail, phone-a-thon and email communications to ensure data integrity and quality.
  • An orientation and hiring checklist is available for managers to oversee new hires.
  • Job descriptions are current and performance evaluation is part of a transparent, annual process.

Maya Gasuk is a senior consultant with West Wind Consulting, a fundraising consulting firm based in Ithaca, N.Y. During her tenure as director of the Cornell Annual Fund, she was responsible for growing the annual fund from $10 million to $27 million.

Comment on this article


Great article...love the tie in that it is important for the Leadership Team to give to the Annual Fund. Well written and some great take-aways here!

Written by an expert. The need for volunteer engagement in an Annual Fund is so often missed totally outside of university fundraising. Putting a human and demographically relevant human face on this effort makes a difference. Good Going West Wind !

A lot of good stuff here. This one jumped out at me: "The use of annual-fund gifts is clearly articulated to donors in a compelling way." So true, but not as easy to execute as it may seem.

This is a great article that I will share with others. We can't repeat enough that individual goals must roll up to the total budget. But I also think the first comment has merit, that multiple giving (a recurring credit charge) is better than annual giving. It is unfair of the author to write a long piece without a single definition of its terms, and then try to refute the first commentator's logical definition of "annual" with some after-the-fact definition.

Using an annual fund strategy has huge disadvantages compared to using a current giving strategy and asking 3-4x per year.

Multi-gift donors (4x/yr) are the best prospects for planned giving.

Donors want to give more than 1x per year and annual fund programs create extremely high attrition rates.

Annual Giving is used as a term in many areas of philanthropy as one of the three types of giving (annual, campaign, ultimate) typically seen in charitable organizations. In this context, the use of the term "annual giving" is meant as the type of gift program, not necessarily the frequency of solicitation or giving that takes place within the program.

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