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Annual giving: Personalized donor focus

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By Todd Cohen

As it gears up for a capital campaign expected to total $75 million to $100 million, Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., is counting on annual giving.

And annual giving at the school increasingly is looking for more personal ways to communicate with individual donors, school officials say.

“We try to make every donor, regardless of their giving level, know how much they’re appreciated,” says Anne Hurd, senior director of development.

Founded in 1837, annual giving at the Quaker liberal-arts school drives the overall development program.

“Within development, the bedrock of college support is annual giving, which is current-use operating funds to the college,” Hurd says. “That’s the way potential major donors are identified. They have a lifelong relationship with the college. They start with smaller gifts because they have less income. And over the years, when they reach milestones, like a reunion, they increase their giving.”

The school uses volunteer class agents to help solicit the nearly 12,000 alumni for whom it has contact information.

And it increasingly has looked for ways to better mine its donor data and personalize its donor communications.

The school, with 2,700 undergraduates, this year aims to raise $1.1 million through four annual-giving funds, including $1 million for an unrestricted fund, $76,000 for its athletics fund, $50,000 for its campus-ministry fund, and $17,000 for its library fund.

The annual-giving staff works closely with the school’s major-gift officers, or those who work with donors with the potential to make gifts of $25,000 or more, and with its planned-giving officers, or those who work with donors on estate and tax-deferred gifts.

Also working with the school’s corporate and foundation relations director, who looks for large grants, the capital campaign ties the various fundraising programs together, Hurd says.

“The capital campaign gives us our theme, sets our goals, takes the college’s long-range plan and markets it, and helps us develop our strategy when we talk to prospects,” she says.

And annual giving lies at the strategic heart of its fundraising, she says.

“Annual giving helps us identify people who have given more recently and most consistently and at the higher levels,” she says.

So the school constantly mines its data on donors’ “recency and frequency” to identify the best major-gift prospects, who then are the focus of further research, Hurd says.

Guilford also has taken steps to make its appeals more personal.

After several years of outsourcing phone-a-thons it holds over four weeks each fall and six weeks every spring to solicit alumni, the school this year has trained 20 student callers who are paid to phone alumni Mondays through Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

So far this school year, 16.3 percent of alumni are participating in annual giving, up from 15 percent at this time last year, says Emily Thompson, director of Guilford annual funds.

Aiming to reach 30 percent participation during the capital campaign, the school expects this year to reach 25 percent participation.

And in February, during a weekend when the school’s alumni board will be on campus, its 30 members will spend a Friday evening phoning alumni to thank them for gifts of up to $1,000.

“It’s another touch for our constituents to feel like their gift is important,” Thompson says.

At the end of the last school year, Guilford also sent thank-you cards, along with the gift of a magnet, to all donors, talking about the programs the annual funds support.

In addition to appeals to donors, Guilford works with regional councils in Atlanta, Charlotte, Florida, New York City and Washington, D.C., and with alumni in Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, Va., that also are considering forming regional councils.

And on Jan. 24, a donor in Washington, D.C., hosted a two-hour reception for donors who gave last year or this year to the annual fund.

The event may serve as a model for donors in other regions to host similar events.

With annual giving to Guilford growing to over $1 million as a result of its most recent capital campaign, which ended in December 2002 and raised $56 million, exceeding its goal by $6 million, the school has seen alumni participation increase, Thompson says.

Using the consistent message that annual gifts support current students, she says, the school also is working to give donors more options for giving.

“Donors want ownership of their gift,” she says.

So while annual gifts still are unrestricted and for current use, donors now can designate gifts for specific programs.

“Annual funds have been running since the late 1800s, and there’s not a lot of difference in the strategy,” Hurd says. “We just keep trying to refine it and do better and make it pertinent to Guilford College supporters.”

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