Soliciting annual gifts

Linda London

Many organizations tend to think of their annual-fund strategy as mailing out appeals each year. They miss out on the benefits of an integrated year-round effort.

Getting started

Typically, annual campaigns start by setting a goal, balancing the needs of the nonprofit with past fundraising history.  The goal should be a stretch that forces the organization to work hard.

The next step is to write a basic, compelling case for support that includes what you need the money for and how the donor’s gift will change lives. Share a compelling story-a hook-and make the ask several times within the course of the appeal.

Have an overall plan for your annual-giving solicitations. I use a very simple grid calendar to space out mailings. You don’t want people feel that every time they come to their mailbox, your agency is asking for money. Include updates that are not solicitations and newsletters on your scedule.

Solicitation types

It’s a good idea to send letters at least twice a year, as people do their giving at different times. Newsletters, which are primarily educational, are also a way to get in a soft ask without overwhelming a donor with solicitations. Make sure to include a response envelope for people who are moved by the stories.

Phone solicitations should be another piece of your strategy. A good time to call is after you send out a letter, if you’re not getting a response.

Email communications also are great, especially when your primary audience is younger, but keep them short. Emails should have a link to your webpage so you don’t have to put all the information in the email itself.

Everything you send out should be driving people to your webpage to learn more about your organization. Make sure your webpage provides an easy way to donate.

Special events can be a way of introducing donors to your organization. Your follow-up can make the difference between those who become ongoing donors and those who just go to the parties.

A group I advise recently had a very successful picnic. Before the event, board members were assigned specific prospects to seek out, meet and engage in discussion about the work of the organization. They followed up with a note to each saying that it was good to meet them at the event. Neither element of this strategy included an ask, but the next time that prospect gets an appeal, there’s an increased likelihood they’ll respond.

Triage system

Most nonprofits can’t afford to call everyone, because they are too short-staffed. Instead, most groups approach solicitation with a triage system.

The most cost- and time-effective way to get $10-50 donations is a letter. As donors move up in gift levels, there’s a real need for a more personal approach.

The people I recommend calling are mid-level givers, either donors you think are capable of a higher level of giving or lapsed donors. “We’ve missed you” postcards can be a clever way of recapturing the attention of a lapsed donor, but it’s always best to prevent lapses in the first place.

Non-response to a solicitation is most often simply an oversight. However, if there are concerns, a phone call can allow you to address them and bring the donor back before they move on to other causes.

Personalizing mailings are a step up. You can have a board member write a quick personal note on your standard letter, including their name under the group’s on the envelope. This will increase the likelihood of a letter getting read.

For higher levels of giving, I recommend a face-to-face approach. A lot of people don’t think of in-person appeals when you’re talking about annual giving, but for your top donors, it is important.


Thank-you notes are standard for all donors, within 24 hours. A week is reasonable for smaller groups, but a month is unacceptable.

The most important thank-you notes you send will be to your new donors – welcome them to your organization to ensure that the gift is the first of many.

As gifts increase in size, they warrant increasing levels of personalization in recognition. A mid-level gift might warrant a personal note on the acknowledgement letter. Top donors should get a personal phone call from a board member. These calls are remembered.

Research has shown that donors who are personally thanked, without an ask, give again and give more.

General stewardship is equally important and often neglected. Send your regular givers an update, no ask included, once a year to communicate how much you appreciate their support, and what you’ve accomplished with it. Although there’s no explicit ask, such updates will have a powerful impact on your bottom line.

Support tactics

I can’t overstate the importance of general marketing to the success of later solicitations. Having articles in the newspaper and keeping your visibility up is crucial, because people give to groups they know.

I still hear people say, “We want our marketing to be extremely modest, because we don’t want people to think we spend a lot on it.” People tend to give generously to groups that appear successful and nickels to those that look like they operate on nickels.

So go ahead and have your materials professionally done, and if you’re lucky enough to get it done pro-bono, print that on the piece so your donors know you’re leveraging their gifts.

Finally, keep good records so that you can document the impact of various efforts. If you can show your volunteers that, “Our response rate went up 40 percent when you were making calls,” they’re more likely to agree to make them again.

Linda London teaches fundraising, grant writing and marketing in the MBA program at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., and consults with nonprofit organizations throughout the Northeast on issues of strategic planning, evaluation, volunteer development, marketing and fundraising.

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