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Enhance your annual fund response; here, from our marketing pro: No-fail strategies for optimizing those fundraising efforts.

For most colleges and universities, the annual fund is the backbone of fundraising strategies, and that's for a number of reasons:

First, the annual fund is the simplest and most frequent of all fundraising appeals, and as such, it's a good gauge of a college's overall ability to raise dollars. After all, if a college cannot manage its annual giving program, it is likely that more complicated fundraising strategies such as capital campaigns or planned giving will prove even more elusive.

Second, annual giving is an important litmus test of alumni satisfaction, lf giving is up, or at least steady, alumni are likely satisfied. At the same time, a publicized malfeasance--the firing of a beloved football coach, for instance, or changing the institution's name--can negatively impact giving, if not handled correctly.

Third, alumni giving is also a key criterion that foundations evaluate when considering your grant request. Their reasoning is simple: If alumni don't support the college, why should we?

Finally, a number of colleges and universities need the dollars generated through alumni giving to bolster their annual operating budget.

For these and other reasons, a strong annual fund program is essential. So, let's explore some options for enhancing your annual fund response. While some ideas will be simple and others more complex, at least one or two is guaranteed to help you reach and even exceed your annual goal. However, before we can discuss how to enhance your annual giving, two mindsets are in order:

First, a successful annual fund is not automatic. Too many colleges and universities took at the annual fund as a spigot that they can turn each year (open the valve and cash comes out). This kind of attitude will , over time, lead to a decline in giving. The annual fund is best considered as an expression of a larger relationship. If the relationship is solid and of benefit to these donors, then the annual-fund dollars will come.

Second, remember that your desire for these dollars does not automatically equate to a donor's desire to give. In fact, a recent study completed by Stamats consultants ( indicates that donors are asked to give to different organizations and associations more than 100 times a year, and the most common reason people don't give is not that they weren't asked (a popular myth), but because the reason wasn't compelling. Your donors must understand your need, both logically and emotionally. Donors don't give out of obligation, but out of a sense of involvement.

With those two preambles in place, let's talk about donation enhancement.


Historically, annual funds were designed to raise dollars from alumni. The days of alumni-only annual funds are long gone. At the American School in London, for example, parents of current students are an essential component of its annual fund strategy. Recognizing that an annual fund is about more than alumni, it is not unusual to see an annual fund directed at a number of other major populations including:

Parents of current students and former students

* Current donors

* Faculty and staff

* Business leaders

* Vendors that supply the institution

* Community residents

The basic equation is this: If you can make the case that an audience segment benefits because of your institution, then you can legitimately include them in your donor list. Of course, you will need different giving appeals and communication strategies for each group. Also, from the annual fund perspective, it is very important to work with the richest possible definition of alumni. Rather than simply students who graduate, alumni (from a giving perspective) often include students who completed a certain number of hours.


One of the more prevalent reasons that young alumni often do not give is because they believe, on a certain level, that as long as they are paying off their college loans, they are somehow contributing to the institution. Of course, the real story is a good deal more complicated than this. But the fact remains that student indebtedness is a major hindrance to young alumni giving. Helping students man age their debt level can go a long way to helping them become happy alumni donors.


There's no longer any doubt that strong annual fund programs re quire good data. Not only must you know where you annual fund donors live, but you must also know their interests, inclinations, and giving history. It is amazing and sad how many colleges and universities have Lost contact with huge segments of potential donors. Furthermore, they often know little more about the donors beyond where they live or--perhaps, in the case of alumni-when they graduated. Yet, if there is one constant rule for annual fund campaigns, it is this: The more donors you know, and the more you know about those donors, the greater the giving. Invest the time and money you must to build the donor base.

And there is another important dataset to track: Past giving. The first question an annual fund donor will likely ask when called, is, "How much did I give in the past?" Knowing the amount, and how it was used, is a great stepping stone to a larger give.

With better data, schools can now conduct more cost-effective appeals by identifying groups of alumni likely to be more generous both now and later, says Bob Burdenski, author of Innovations in Annual Giving: Ten Departures That Worked (CASE Books, 2003).

"Schools spend a lot of money acquiring new donors, yet most schools lose two-thirds of those new donors the following year," says Burdenski, who explains, "If donors are retained for a second year, they're much more likely to repeat as donors for many more years to come. I increasingly see schools with deliberate strategies that ex press special appreciation for their first-time donors in an effort to strengthen these relationships. Before these schools were unable to see their own donor retention data, they tended to treat all donors the same way. Now they know that their new donors are very, very fragile."


Much as you would use research to refine a campaign appeal, you can use research to test basic annual fund strategies, the timing of the annual fund, and even suggested giving levels. One solid move is to use research to explore why some alumni and friends never give, or give at low levels. Often this research can be used as a first step to building that relationship.


Most annual funds rely on some combination of postal mail or telephone solicitation. If you have good data on giving history, you can spend more on the appeal with great confidence of a higher return. Individuals with a rich giving history should be contacted personally. Those with a giving history at a lower level might receive a postal mail solicitation. Significant donors might receive both.


Focusing on alumni for just a second, remember to organize your annual giving not around year of graduation, but also according to the school from which they graduated. Alumni can easily rebuff appeals from the larger university, but will have a tough time refusing an appeal from the individual school or program from which they graduated. This is especially true for adult students such as those who attended an executive MBA program.


Interested in a no-brainer? Try repeating your campaign every six or seven months, lf, for example, yours is a Big Ten school that just beat a competitor to become the national champion, repeating the annual fund so that a bunch of delirious alumni and friends can give again, is a solid strategy.


And no, it's not their wallet or purse, but their heart. A number of years ago, after I had graduated from the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon, I received a call from a student. "Do you remember those typewriters you used in Basic News Writing?" (Remember, this was a long time ago.) "Well, we're trying to replace them. Can we count on you to help?" Of course I remembered those typewriters, and of course they could count on me.


If the job of the Admissions office is to recruit young alumni, then the job of the college is to begin working with freshmen so that they understand their role as alumni. Rather than waiting until they graduate, begin involving current students now. While they might not be in a position to give, they ore in an excellent position to ask. Put them on the phone. During her tenure as alumni director at Coe College CFA), Libby Slappey (now associate director of Development at Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa), would ask seniors to consider turning over their housing deposit as their first gift to the college. Annual giving consultant Bob Burdenski ( has seen schools increasingly take deliberate steps toward teaching a giving tradition to their students. And at Carnegie Melton (PA), the Tartan Appreciation Program links student giving with faculty appreciation. Graduating CMU students are invited to make a gift in tribute to a faculty member who had a positive impact on their education at CMU.

"It's a program that gives students an opportunity to say thanks, gives faculty a well-deserved pat on the back, and helps to create a stronger campus culture of philanthropy and community," says Burdenski.


One excellent way to increase response is to integrate your institution's annual fund appeals across multiple media. Rather than relying just on postal mail or telephone, precede your annual fund campaign with some articles in your alumni/friends magazine. Send out a letter from the president that announces the campaign but does not make the ask. Use your Web site to reinforce and even expand key messages. For three great examples of how colleges are using their Web sites to help make the case for the annual fund, check out Duke University's (NC) annual fund Web page at UC Riverside's page at, and the University of New Hampshire's page at Always keep top of mind that integrating across multiple platforms will increase giving.


Most major events and anniversaries are often tied to a capital campaign. However, smaller events--or even calamities--can trigger an annual fund campaign. A friend who is a president of a small college in Missouri turned to the annual fund to raise dollars after a tornado devastated his campus. Another college tied the annual fund to the inauguration of a new president.

James K. Elliott, director of Annual Giving at Centre College (KY), mentioned that to market Centre's annual giving campaign this year, they came up with a theme: "Centre's Journey Down Route 66." The theme is directly tied to the college's goal of reaching 66 percent alumni participation, one of the highest giving rates in the country. Next, Centre created a Logo specific to this year's annual giving campaign, which the school has used in various mailings and online, as well. The theme has been incorporated into the phoning, e-mail, and direct mail appeals.


In fall 2002, The Ohio State University partnered with catalog retailer Lands' End and sent catalogs to its alumni and other donors. The catalog contained only OSU insignia goods. Not only did the university receive a percentage of each sale, but the annual fund which was conducted immediately after the catalog was sent, was highly successful.


Humor can be dangerous in fundraising. But if you want to use humor, the annual fund is probably the best place. A number of years ago, while working with Clarkson College (NY), we received a fascinating piece, "Make Millsy' Smile." The copy opens: Did you receive financial aid when you were a student at Clarkson? If yes, then chances are good you know the man pictured here. He's Don Mills ... Clarkson's Director of Financial Aid for 29 years ... affectionately known as "Millsy" ... the man who helped thousands of us afford our Clarkson education.

The solicitation went on to say that Millsy wasn't smiling because of cuts in state and federal aid. Yet, a gift from an alum would help restore Millsy's smile because he won't have to say "no" to a deserving student. The copy dosed by saying, "any gift will make Millsy smile." But a contribution of $10,000 or $100,000 or more can make Millsy positively "joyous."


Nope, it's not your father's (or mother's) annual fund any more. More than appealing to your alumni, and more than employing a blend of postal mail and telephone, today's annual fund program provides a rich opportunity to not only raise significant dollars, but to enhance your relationship with your annual donors. It's up to you to make it happen.

Bob Sevier is a senior VP of Stamats Communications (
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Title Annotation:Marketing
Author:Sevier, Bob
Publication:University Business
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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