Reinvigorating annual-fund campaigns

Maya Gasuk
Maya Gasuk

PJ’s Ret Boney talked to fundraising veteran Maya Gasuk about the recession’s impact on annual-fund giving and what to keep in mind as the economy begins to rebound. After serving as director of annual giving at Cornell University for 10 years, Gasuk this summer will join West Wind Consulting Strategies in Fund Raising.

Question: How has the economy impacted annual-fund giving over the past couple of recessionary years?

Answer: At Cornell, we were fortunate that our dollars went up 13 percent in fiscal 2009 compared to 2008, but for most, dollars were flat or declined. At the same time, there wasn’t a dollar we didn’t hustle for.

For higher-education nonprofits, including us, participation softened. Over the last two years people were making decisions about which charities to invest in. We saw, for example, that a lot of our loyal donors stayed, although we did have some drop in participation from less loyal donors.

For the most part, annual-fund people are optimists. The silver lining here is there was lot more institutional communication from the university and the president about the financial situation of our institution and how critical a role philanthropy plays. Donors saw those needs and many increased they amount they gave in response.

As major giving slowed and the endowment value dropped, current-use operating dollars became much more important. So annual-fund giving became front and center within the university.

When you’re in a budget pinch and endowment values have dropped, you remember it’s important to maintain the balance between major gifts and annual gifts. There’s an opportunity to take that momentum and keep going.

Q: How have development officers been adjusting?

A: Because of budget pressures, we had significant layoffs within our division, and the annual fund was not exempt from that. We lost 15 percent of our staff and 10 percent of our operating budget.

It has been a good opportunity to back up and focus on the activities that make up the core of our business. We really did engage our entire fund staff in rebuilding and changing things.

We discontinued a couple of volunteer programs that had been longstanding traditions, but that we no longer had the staff to continue. It was hard to work through those conversations, but I was encouraged by how supportive our volunteers were.

In our case we changed how we work with some of our volunteers. We told them “we need you to give at a certain level and ask others to give.” If they weren’t comfortable with that, we found other activities for them.

As staff, we stepped up our efforts too, so there was mutual accountability. And because of the financial situation, everyone understood why that was important.

When the recession hit, we were in the midst of setting individual ask amounts for every single donor and all asks were an increase over the previous year. Some increases were modest and some were more dramatic.

We needed to be more sophisticated in our approach and use technology and segmentation to keep growing. At the same time, we needed to have more personal outreach. We could know whether to adjust an ask or stop solicitations completely for that year because we were paying personal attention to our donors during a difficult economy.

Q: Where were annual-fund officers caught short?

For a while, the markets were high, money was just coming in and fundraisers in general didn’t have to work as hard for contributions.

People can get easily distracted by shiny objects like Facebook and other social-media tools. There’s a tendency to think the next new thing will solve all of our problems.

But at the end of the day it’s all about a conversation with donors. We need to continue to invest in the core of the business first and foremost and not get distracted by iPhone apps and Facebook pages. Holding that same standard of accountability in the era of the novel is really important.

The core of what we do is relationship building and asking. Someday social media will complement that. But right now, I don’t think the answer to participation decreases is Facebook, for example. It’s more important to look at your operations and figure our where things are disconnected.

Q: Now that the economy may be starting to look up, what are the most important things to focus on when launching an annual-fund campaign?

A: I don’t think it’s any different now than before. It’s really important to be out there talking to people. You’re not going to raise increased philanthropy by taking a passive approach.

Be sure you’re thinking through how all the pieces fit together and how to be as efficient as possible. It’s easy to get distracted by a volunteer or donor or new staff member or president that has great intentions.

But you need to stay focused on what will generate the greatest return. And that is the most personal connection with high-potential donors as you can manage.

There’s evidence from multiple places that the people who ask for more get more, so we need to be asking for increased support. And on the back end, people need to feel good about what’s done with their money.

Stewardship is a critical area. There’s often a disconnect between the ask process and the thank-you process. The ask and stewardship activities should be integrated operationally. We could accelerate philanthropy if we did that well.

Q: What should annual fund directors be doing this year that’s different from the past couple of tough years?

A: A lot of people talk about this current climate as the “new normal.” But annual fund drives take place every year and every year we have to deliver. To do that, it’s important for annual-fund managers to focus on staff management and retention.

We could not have succeeded in the way we have without a good staff. With high turnover you don’t have enough stability to maintain relationships. To develop strong bonds and sophisticated thinking, it requires a person to be in a position for a number of years.

I think we’ve started to realize that annual-fund campaigns and other campaigns are intertwined. We need to understand that and have a solid institutional history at all levels of the organization in order to be effective.

No one blinks an eye when a major-gifts officer has been in a position for a number of years. Why should it be any different for annual-fund employee who has been working with a reunion volunteer for three cycles?

The expectations are growing, and solid management is a better way to be more effective.

But that means I have to be a better manger to hold onto people. Most annual-fund people are there because they want to make a difference, but we also have to make the work experience as pleasant as possible. We as managers carry the responsibility for that and need to give people new opportunities and experiences.

You have to invest in people to make them great at what they do.

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