Annual giving: Focus on relationships

Ret Boney and Todd Cohen

A key goal in the five-year comprehensive campaign that Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, completed on June 30, 2009, was to increase annual giving to $10 million from between $7 million and $8 million.

In the final year of the campaign, which had a goal of $250 million and raised $293.57 million, annual giving totaled roughly $9.4 million.

Randy Shaw, Bowdoin’s vice president for development and alumni relations, says the economic slump has stressed donors, who typically use income to make annual gifts, but saw their portfolios shrink by 10 percent to 40 percent over the past two years.

What’s more, many donors in tough economic times tend to focus more on charitable causes “that hit closer to home for them,” he says.

In response, he says, Bowdoin has focused its annual fundraising on “establishing long-term relationships with parents, alumni and friends.”

Building those connections requires “good outreach and stewardship,” he says.

“So even when times are bad, and even when people feel they might not be able to support you financially, and you’re not actively asking for money,” Shaw says, “you have to maintain relationships.”

One way to develop those relationships, he says, is to use technology in ways that “have relevance in people’s lives.”

Bowdoin, for example, maintains four Facebook pages, monitoring them on a weekly basis and responding to comments posted by readers.

And as part of a final fundraising push last May and June before the close of the fiscal year, the school promoted its alumni fund – one of four components of its annual-giving program – on Facebook, with ads that attracted 500 to 600 visitors who clicked on a link that took them to Bowdoin’s own fundraising website.

Involving volunteers

At Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region in Charlotte, N.C., the average number of daily patients fell 20 percent in the last two quarters of 2008, and the amount donors gave to the annual fund fell 2 percent.

In response, Hospice worked to get volunteers more involved, beginning with the board of directors, says Cindy Clark, vice president for development.

Every member of the 18-person board last year signed a commitment to either give or raise $5,000 for Hospice in the form of new or increased gifts, for example, and roughly 70 percent of the board met that goal.

Hospice also has had success with special events, which by Oct. 31, 2010, had generated revenue that exceeded their goal by 23 percent.

Clark says when they visit companies to ask for $5,000 gifts, she and board members ask officials if they might prefer to sponsor a special event at that level.

Recession opportunities

For the Chicago Community Trust, the nation’s second-oldest community foundation, needs created by the recession have presented an opportunity to embark on what could become a type of annual fundraising.

Three years ago, the Trust launched the Unity Challenge, a fundraising effort aimed at easing the burden of the recession for local residents.

“We wanted to be able to put more money into the community to deal with the homeless and access to food,” says Jamie Phillippe, vice president of development and donor services for the Trust, which has assets of over $1.6 billion and awarded $140 million in grants in fiscal 2010. “Any money that we raise through that is matched by the Trust and is granted out to meet the needs caused by the downturn.”

Over those three years, the effort has raised a total of about $10 million, including the Trust’s matches, all of which has been put back into the community.

That fundraising was done primarily through direct mail, with special solicitations, phone calls, personal letters and face-to-face meetings with select donors.

“There have been a lot of stories, so people are very aware of how much need there is,” says Phillippe.

For now, with unemployment still a major factor in the Chicago area, the annual Unity Challenge will continue, she says, although a decision to phase it out may come at some point in the future.

Loyalty counts

For the American Diabetes Association, total giving is off about 11 percent since the onset of the recession, falling to $156 million in 2009 from $178 million in 2007.

Some of that decline comes from the association’s 2.5 million “active” donors, those who have given at least once in the last two years.

“We’re seeing our loyal donors are staying with us,” says Vaneeda Bennett, executive vice president for development. “They’re giving more gifts, but the gifts are smaller. People are tightening their belts across the board. They’re still interested in donating to us, but they’re being more cautious with their donations.”

To spark a boost in annual giving, the association is focusing attention on its “mid-level” donors, or those whose gifts are higher than average, but haven’t reached the $10,000 threshold for major giving.

The organization’s annual gifts are solicited primarily through direct mail, says Bennett, but those mid-level donors now will be getting increased personal communication, including phone calls.

And that new level of effort may be necessary to succeed in what she says is a new environment.

“It’s possible it will ever go back to the way it was,” Bennett says of historical giving trends and fundraising expectations. “Organizations that were raising millions more in the past were a certain size. Now you may have to scale back your organization to live within your means.”

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