Five Experts on the Need for Annual Giving Planning

For most shops, the past several years have been a financial roller coaster for annual giving numbers. As annual giving recovers momentum this year, now is the right time to invest time and energy in planning for the long term. One of the most critical lessons that can be learned from the past few years is the importance of not remaining at the mercy of macro-level trends in giving. Rather than invest in the same efforts year after year, take a proactive approach to annual giving planning so that you can deploy your solicitation tools in support of specific, long-term goals.

This week, we reached out to five leading thinkers on the issue to learn more about the shift in thinking that needs to occur in order to position the annual fund strongly for the future:

  • Jessica Neno Cloud, assistant director for fundraising initiatives and planned giving for the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation
  • Brian Daugherty, director of development and alumni relations for the School of Law at the University of San Diego
  • Heather Grieg, interim senior director for Georgetown University Medical Center's annual fund
  • Chris Harmon, leadership giving officer with Gettysburg College
  • Janine Kraus, assistant vice chancellor for annual giving programs at Texas Christian University

Here are their insights.

Defining Long-Term Goals and Key Metrics

Jessica Neno Cloud: Each year has to be a little bit different in annual giving if you want to grow your program. This doesn't mean spending more money, necessarily, but it does mean looking for new ideas and reaching out to new or neglected constituencies. If you have never undertaken a targeted effort at young alumni, make a plan. If you have always done a letter from the president or dean, try a letter from a grateful student this year. Annual fund planning is important because you need to strike that balance between keeping it fresh but not shocking your donors. That doesn't just happen -- it takes reflection upon previous years and a coordinated plan for the future.

Heather Grieg: An effective annual giving plan includes not just activities to pursue, but also key metrics that you need to be meeting. It's quite simple: what gets tracked gets done. When you can use your institution's data to learn more about your program and what is working, you can develop a set of realistic and long-term goals, and then lay out the milestones that you need to reach along the way to ensure that you meet those goals. Then you have a plan, something to return to and measure your performance against.

Janine Kraus: In order to reach the goal, annual giving professionals must have certain items in place -- key metrics and reporting tools, detailed budgets, informed and engaged staff who were involved in the planning process and understand what their efforts are contributing to and what you're aiming for.

Not a One-Time Effort

Chris Harmon: So many times I've seen a college, university, or organization work so very hard on their strategic plans only to have it placed on a top shelf and never looked at again. Clear goals, strategies, and resources are put in place and yet they're never revisited to check on their progress, completion, or redirection.  The plan should never accumulate any measure of dust; it needs to be a living document. Realize that it is a process, a cycle, that you will need to revisit, reevaluate and readjust.

Janine Kraus: Effective annual giving planning is something that is reviewed year-round. It isn't one action that happens at the beginning of the year. It is a set of tools that are reviewed, managed, and edited throughout the entire fiscal year.

Brian Daugherty: This is an active process that starts with the initial plan but involves consistent monitoring of the plan to assess progress toward goals and to make mid-course corrections.

Heather Grieg: A successful annual giving plan needs to be a living, breathing thing. Part of the beauty of annual giving is that we can learn in real-time (more or less) whether an effort is working, or not. A good plan needs to be able to accomodate those findings.

Being Intentional about the Planning Process

Heather Grieg: Getting the right people together in the beginning of the process is critical to successful planning, whether it's:

  • Your communications team who will write your appeals
  • Your gift processing team who will certainly have a stake in that new reply card you're designing
  • Your alumni relations counterpart who does young alumni programming

These people are all beneficial to the process. Not only does involving them from the start in your planning effort ensure buy-in, but also, at the end of the day, I've found that you can end up with a better product.

Chris Harmon: Know your program, know your database, and continue to assess your strengths and weaknesses. This means you need to plan intentionally for ongoing analysis of your data. Planning is not easy but it is critical to the success of your annual fund.

Jessica Neno Cloud: Ask yourself: How can I make my annual fund plan for next year more donor-centric? Ask this question as it applies to direct mail, phone, email ... how can you invite your donors to feel invested in the institution and its success?

  • First, look at your program and identify areas where you can improve. Perhaps your donor retention is great, but young alumni aren't giving within the first few years after graduation. What will it take to grow that area?
  • Next, take a hard look at your budget and determine all of the areas you can trim without sacrificing donors or dollars. Shift those budgetary dollars to the growth areas.
  • Don't forget to look at the volume of work. If you aren't calling enough of your database or mailing to the right people, you are leaving dollars on the table unclaimed for your institution.

The Long View

In a selective donor climate with increasing competition for philanthropic support, shops can no longer afford to plan only for the year at hand. As support grows and your institution moves beyond the rockiness of the past several years, take this opportunity to take a step back and look at how best to strengthen your annual fund operation -- and identify the key metrics that will allow you to monitor your progress.

"Planning is the process that allows us to assess past performance, identify our current strengths and weaknesses, and then determine what actions we need to take to build on our strengths and limit/improve our weaknesses. It is the road map to a stronger, more vibrant annual giving program, which in turn is the foundation of a successful development program."
Brian Daugherty, University of San Diego

Don't Forget...

"At its finest, annual giving is about a donor-centric and efficient process. All aspects of your shop have to work in concert to seamlessly provide an enjoyable giving experience—one that will inspire your donors to want to repeat year after year. This starts with ensuring you give your alumni and friends every opportunity to donate easily, using all the tools they use in their daily lives."
Courtney Gulden, Conference Director, Academic Impressions

Offering food for thought, Gulden adds:

  • "If you don’t have a mobile-enabled giving site, you’re going to lose out, because that’s where your constituencies live."
  • "You also have to be mindful of your stewardship post-gift. Your receipting should be as immediate as you can make it, and you should be sending all your donors a separate thank you with information on what sorts of programs the annual fund will support and why that support matters, in human terms. As you enter into the back half of your year and begin to plan for next year, pause for a moment and remember that your donors want to feel included, excited, recognized and valued."