I know that fundraising is my vocation because I can never pass up an opportunity to contribute to an organization’s development efforts. Such was the case with a fledgling not-for-profit group to which I belong. They are a dedicated support group for families of children born with a certain birth defect. Their president is a devoted volunteer but, when it came time to raise money, she had the good sense to go looking for help.
I was already involved with the group on a personal level. My name was suggested to the president as someone who could help her start up an annual giving program. In their two-year history, their entire fundraising effort consisted of one grant from a local hospital foundation. They needed a good base of individual donors who could provide support.
This was a rare opportunity for a fundraising professional. This organization was a clean slate. I could point them in the right direction from the start. After working on multi-million dollar annual campaigns and capital campaigns, I had to counsel myself to take things very slowly. Thankfully, they realized that they needed to take baby steps as well.
It is a cliché, but a good annual giving program really is more about friend raising than fundraising. It takes a humble person to be the annual giving director. You have to be the set up person for the other development officers in your organization. One of the rewards is that you will have contact with more of your organization’s donors than any other development officer. Also, if things are done right, when you hear about that mammoth capital gift or planned gift, you will know those larger gifts came from someone who was cultivated, well educated and made to feel important as an annual giver.
For this group, my focus was on building a strong core of supporters. I was willing to start small if I knew that the donors we gathered were dedicated. So, where do you go to identify your best supporters? The answer is: not far. The people who will be your most reliable annual donors are the people who are already involved. Most people will give their money before they give their time. Therefore, if you have a group of volunteers who are helping you, they have already exceeded the commitment necessary to contribute financially.
This organization was no exception. We have a dedicated group of perhaps a dozen people who give their time and talent to the group and there were some great prospects here, including doctors and professionals. A dozen may not sound like much, but we then asked them to name others they had shared their child’s story with, explaining the support and involvement of our organization. People they knew had a soft spot for our cause. From those dozen people we developed a list of about 200 names. Now we were getting somewhere. We also had a list of hundreds of people whose child had been treated for the deformity.
So we now had a prospect list of several hundred names, which could be further divided into multiple tiers. At the top were financially capable doctors and professionals who had dedicated all or part of their careers to treating this condition (capable and invested); next were families who had benefited from the organization’s support (varying capability and definite inclination); lastly were friends who were interested enough in the cause to listen (varying capability and varying inclination). As with all successful fundraising efforts, we approached these prospects from the top down. The larger gifts at the beginning would inspire others to stretch.
Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make with an annual giving program is to only communicate with your prospects when you need money. Carve this rule across the top of your desk: LESS THAN HALF OF YOUR MAILINGS OR VISITS TO PROSPECTS SHOULD ASK THEM TO CONTRIBUTE.
Adhering to this rule, we established a very simple formula for this annual giving program. Throughout the year, prospects received quarterly informational newsletters and invitations to two “annual events”, such as a summer barbeque and a holiday party. Additionally, three times during the year, they were asked to contribute, giving us nine mailings, with only three being solicitations.
Three tools were employed to ask for gifts: personal solicitation, direct mail and phone calls. The best option was personal, face-to-face, friend-to-friend solicitation; therefore, I trained the president on the finer points of successful, personal solicitations. First, spend a few minutes delivering a sincere overview of the services the group provides, then look them in the eye and ask them to consider a specific, meaningful gift. It was very fulfilling for the president to call and tell me about one yes answer after another. She was ecstatic! She knew that her dream was being perpetuated through the generosity of her friends, and that is a special feeling.
For the majority of our prospects, we used a combination of direct mail and phone calls. We put together a compelling direct mail package and enlisted the aid of dedicated volunteers (who had already made their own gift) to follow up on those mailings. This is a laborious and, for a small organization, potentially expensive task but do not give in to the desire to cut corners. There is no substitute for quality. As a friend of mine in the construction business says, “You cannot inspect quality into a project. You have to build it in from the start.”
Again, we were asking for conservative gifts from our direct mail donors: $25, $50, or $100 dollars. Next year, when we expand our efforts to include donor retention, we will begin moving those people up the ladder. What we needed right then was a good donor list that would show other supporters how serious we were. As I have said, while this is a fledgling organization, these general principles hold true for most groups.
With a modest response rate, we generated close to $10,000 in new income for the organization; a great boost to the work we are doing, but most importantly, it has given us a base of support for bigger things down the road. One day we will consider capital projects, or endowment fund raising and our annual donors who are cultivated and well informed will provide the core of support for such a project. Ultimately, good annual donors make the best planned giving prospects. This successful annual giving program will provide the foundation to make our larger goals possible.
This article, Starting An Annual Giving Program, covered building a solid and effective annual giving program from scratch. In the next issue, I will expand on ways to enhance your success with the annual fund from year to year, along with how to build on what you learn with an endowment or capital campaign. I hope you enjoy both issues.
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