Ten Tips for the Annual Fund in the Face of Adversity

Ten Tips for the Annual Fund in the Face of Adversity

With June 30 just a handful of weeks away, the clock is ticking on the Annual Fund. Yet COVID-19’s impact on all schools has been profound, and at many places a critical month has been lost. While some schools are within striking distance of their budgeted goals, many still have a way to go and were relying on important spring fundraising campaigns to close the gap. Here are 10 tips to a successful close to this year’s annual giving campaign:

1: DON’T STOP FUNDRAISING

While the current economic and health crisis is like nothing any of us have experienced before, there are some parallels to be drawn from the Great Recession. Although we know that total philanthropic giving in the U.S. dropped 16% during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Americans still gave more than $320 billion to charitable organizations in 2009! Your school can’t afford to miss out on its share of those gifts. And your school’s needs today are not any less important than they were a month ago – and in fact are likely much greater now and into the future. Of course, make sure you have executed empathetic outreach, both in the form of written communication from your Head of School and personal contact from staff members, in advance of your appeals. And engage your volunteers in your spring plan. They may be a critical part of your success and may be eager to have an impact.

2: FOCUS ON LEADERSHIP DONORS

You and your team should focus your energies on those individuals who are most likely to move the needle on your fundraising. Work hardest to re-enlist support from donors who have made leadership gifts in the past. Hone in on LYBUNTS and other regular donors. Now is not the time to think about acquisition of new donors, nor to fret over maintaining high levels of participation.

3: DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS

This crisis is not affecting every donor equally. While there are some families who have been impacted directly, either financially or medically, and some who are truly anxious about the future, others are feeling minimal personal impact other than significant inconvenience. Prior to a recent webinar we invited participants to send questions in advance and one asked, “How do I fundraise when everyone is scared?”  My guess is that individual was really thinking, “How do I fundraise when I am scared?” Let individual donors tell you when they are ready or able to give. Don’t assume they are not.

4. EXAMINE WHO HAS GIVEN THROUGH DONOR ADVISED FUNDS

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that giving through Donor Advised Funds in March 2020 was up dramatically compared to giving in March 2019. Examine your records to know who gives regularly through these vehicles or through family foundations. And similarly, if you have the capability, understand who has given gifts of stocks—like medical and pharmaceutical companies, Amazon or Zoom—that have seen significant increases in value. Ask these individuals if now might be a good time for them to consider a gift to your school.

5. DOUBLE DOWN ON EVENT FUNDRAISING

If a Spring auction or gala is an important part of your overall annual goal, commit to a successful online event and double down on your fundraising. Personally ask sponsors to continue their support. Don’t automatically refund ticket purchases—rather, provide an “opt-in” opportunity for those who wish to receive a refund. Conduct a virtual live auction with a focus on school-related items, and don’t be afraid to be a bit light-hearted. One school auctioned off a roll of toilet paper and watched the bidding reach $2,500! And use the voting or comment section of Zoom to encourage a virtual “raise the paddle.”

6. BE THOUGHTFUL IN THE LANGUAGE OF YOUR APPEALS

This is not the time for business as usual, and last year’s spring appeal is not going to work this year.  Using language like “A number of people have asked us how they can help” acknowledges that some are in a better position than others to support the school. One particularly effective appeal noted that despite all of the upheaval, the school “still needs our participation in Annual Giving, not only to support its complex technological shift to ‘virtual,’ but for its vital enduring priorities such as financial aid and faculty compensation, which have only become more critical during these uncertain times.”

7. GIVING DAYS ARE WORKING

Many schools have plans for a Day of Giving this spring, and some are wondering whether or not to move forward. We have seen a number of highly successful giving days—a few that have set records for individual schools—and many have focused intensely on the importance of supporting people and of building community. If in the past you have asked for specific gift amounts, consider this year asking for “a gift in any amount,” to be sensitive to those who may have suffered economic hardship.

8. LOOK FOR HEROIC DONORS

Many schools have a handful of “heroic” or “problem solving” donors—those individuals who like to help “fix things” with their giving.  You might consider looking to those individuals to help make up a significant shortfall in total giving, or to make a highly public leadership gift at a critical time, or to create a challenge gift to encourage giving by others in the community.

9. CONTINUE TO FOCUS ON YOUR HIGHEST PRIORITY

While there may indeed be specific needs for emergency funding for students’ families or faculty members impacted by the economic downturn, (and by all means fundraise to support those needs!) don’t lose sight of the fact that unrestricted annual fund dollars are important for all schools and critical for many. Talk about how the annual fund truly supports people, ensuring that students who need tuition assistance can continue to attend your school and supporting the faculty whose value is more evident than ever before

10. YOU CAN’T THANK DONORS ENOUGH

Make sure your donors know how important their support is at this time. Be genuine in your thanks.  Yes, of course, send an immediate acknowledgement, but don’t stop there. Call. Send handwritten notes. Involve your head and trustees in thanking donors. Now is not the time for the boilerplate acknowledgement letter that was written last summer.