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Four Current Annual Giving Trends and How to Incorporate Them into a Fundraising Plan

Resource Center - Foundation

Devin Mathias, a consultant with Marts & Lundy (, comes from a active career in annual giving, having previously worked as the director of annual giving at the University of Michigan and with the University of Florida Foundation prior to that. His contributions and efforts helped the University of Michigan achieve the 2009 CASE Circle of Excellence Bronze Award for Fundraising. Just as every spring brings with it the promise of renewal and the start of a new fiscal year, it can also inspire renewed annual giving programs. As you work on your annual giving fundraising plan, Devin prompts you to consider how the following trends and strategies might support your organizational goals.

Devin Mathias1.)   Crowdfunding

This is one of the most exciting “shiny new toys” in the fundraising world—the ability to fund a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large group of people in a short amount of time, all via the Internet. But like social media, email, recurring giving and other exciting trends in the past, your office should be careful when deciding whether or not to dedicate resources to crowdfunding.

The advantages of crowdfunding? It allows you to match a unique cause with an interested, motivated audience. It allows you to apply the major gift philosophy of finding a prospect’s passion within your organization to the annual giving level. And it can illustrate the impact at a level not often seen in annual giving programs. 

For example, $50 does X. Maybe most importantly, it can help an organization find and engage new donors who have never been motivated to support the organization philanthropically. Donors who are acquired online have repeatedly been shown in research to give at higher levels.

The challenges of crowdfunding? It takes the commitment of your resources—time, talent and financial. It takes significant planning. It doesn’t always work.

Questions to consider:

  • Are you handling the “blocking and tackling” of annual giving well? Meaning – are you good at the basics of leadership annual giving, email, phone, mail, data acquisition, engagement—or are you seeking to skip those because they aren’t as exciting as crowdfunding seems to be? If you are not good at the basics, particularly leadership annual giving, you may have a better return on investment by focusing on these areas first.
  • Do you know your constituents? We will dig into this more in the topic of research, but if you do not have data on your constituents regarding why they give, who they want to hear from, what they would prefer to support, etc., you are not ready for crowdfunding.
  • Do your constituents like you? It seems like a simple question but it is often overlooked. Your constituents must have affinity for your organization before you can dive into crowdfunding and anticipate any success.
  • Are you able to dedicate the resources to conducting on-going crowdfunding campaigns (year-round) like Arizona State University ( or would you be better served by managing one specific Giving Day program, such as what the University of Florida ( and Columbia University ( have done?

2.)   Research

In the nonprofit arena we have embraced research as a method to understand major gift prospects. So much so that when we use the term “research” in a nonprofit fundraising context, it is understood to relate to large gifts. While such research is wonderful and has helped many programs fine-tune their major gift fundraising plans, it is not the only research a nonprofit should be conducting.

Nonprofits regularly conduct communications, marketing and annual giving efforts without a single data point from constituent research. We will determine the content and messenger for an appeal based upon what an executive director or president wants. We will ask for support of a specific fund based only upon what we need, not necessarily what is appealing to our prospects. We will send communication pieces—newsletters, emails, magazines—with messages and stories determined without consideration of the impact on appeals. In short, we go to market without understanding our marketplace.

Why is this so? The simple answer: because that’s how we’ve always done it. We pride ourselves on how well nonprofits share “best practices” with each other, but in this case, our good intentions are perpetuating a flawed practice. It is time to stop using methods and messages that have been successful for our peer institutions and start using the approaches that are tailored to our own distinct audiences.

In the for-profit world, the purpose of market research is to understand the perceptions, needs, interests and likely behaviors of our audiences. The corresponding information in the nonprofit arena is learning why donors give, why non-donors do not give, what your constituents want to support, which perspectives they wish to hear, and how they would prefer to be engaged, as well as other information that can target your marketing and appeals (which, let’s be honest—appeals are marketing, even if many don’t want to admit it!).

Conducting constituent research is a key step for any annual giving program that wishes to achieve new levels of success.

3.)   Direct Marketing

Is the phone program dead? Does anybody open their mail anymore? Why should we spend money on these direct marketing techniques that are “old” and not as fancy as everything electronic?

These questions and others similar to them are uttered regularly by those at nonprofits. And however tempting the shiny new toys may be, phone, mail, email and the basics of direct-marketing still matter to your annual giving program.

First: don’t kill the phone program – you simply need to readjust your expectations. Yes, it is more expensive and more difficult to get a hold of people, but it is still one of the best ways to acquire new donors. Donor acquisition and leadership annual giving are areas where you can focus your phone program. Additionally, your phone program is a prime resource for annual giving stewardship. Making day calls and leaving simple voicemails saying “thank you” to your recent donors is a great practice.

Second, for all of your direct marketing, ensure that you are regularly testing things like segmentation, messaging, ask levels, etc. Ideally, you will do this within every piece, selecting a random 10 percent sample to analyze. Remember, annual giving is specialized marketing and testing is a critical component of marketing.

Third – going back to the last topic, use constituent research to determine what your messaging will be, who will sign appeals, what you will be asking for and which segments to contact. This will allow you to limit the money you spend, if budgetary concerns exist, while still generating revenue.

4.)   Stewarding Donors

Historically, one of the greatest challenges for annual giving programs has been thanking donors for their gifts and illustrating the impact of smaller gifts without spending too much money.  Some ways to overcome this challenge without using your entire budget:

  • Email receipts – These are often lacking in gratitude and more business-like as a tax receipt and nothing more. Focus primarily on the impact and thank you, while also serving as the tax receipt.
  • Direct mail gift receipts – This error is even more of an issue with receipts that are being mailed. These are often managed by a finance or gift processing office and not considered for their stewardship potential or impact for annual giving donors.
  • In many ways, social media channels are better for stewardship and illustrating impact than any others. Use it often!

Those that have a successful fundraising plan will embrace stewardship and realize it is critical to your program at all levels. In essence you are competing on impact, stewardship and affinity when it comes to prospects.

These are all great annual giving strategies—whichever you choose to use, make sure you are doing it through-and-through. Make sure it is the right fit for your organization—just because someone else is doing it, doesn’t mean it will work for you. But, if you invest resources—time, talent and finances—your annual giving program can bloom right along with the season. 

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