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5 Strategies for Boosting Annual Giving at Your School

For many universities, annual giving provides the financial support they need to maintain day-to-day operations. While annual giving is just one of the ways schools can fundraise, these campaigns are very effective and can cultivate long-term donor relationships when planned and executed well.

The reason why annual fund donations are so essential is that they are usually unrestricted, meaning they don’t have imposed limitations on how they can be used. The primary purpose of funds obtained through annual giving is to support the school’s general operations rather than funding specific projects like scholarships or new buildings on campus.

In this guide, we’ll explore five strategies that can help increase the amount of funding your school receives from its annual giving campaign:

  1. Audit past campaigns and communication strategies.

  2. Properly plan your annual giving campaign.

  3. Emphasize recurring giving options and matching gifts.

  4. Look for development opportunities.

  5. Keep in touch with donors all year.

Annual fundraising can be difficult since your organization doesn’t have a concrete campaign or project to show your donors where their contributions are going. The strategies outlined in this guide can help your school maximize revenue from annual giving so your daily operations continue to run smoothly.

1. Audit past campaigns and communication strategies.

One of the best ways to improve your annual fundraising efforts is to look at your past campaigns. Audit past performance of comparable campaigns and communication channels, identifying what went well and what could use improvement.

For example, let’s say your school typically incorporates a robust direct mail campaign to make annual appeals. At first glance, it appears that direct mail led many of your supporters to donate. However, after closely inspecting the data, you find that a large percentage of younger direct mail receivers did not engage with your messages at all and that this gap was obfuscated by stronger returns from older segments of your audience.

Based on these findings, you can better segment your supporters to target them with communications they are likely to engage with. In the case of direct mail, you might adjust your strategy by sending these appeals to segments with donors who regularly give through mail.

By sending messages to the right audience through the communication channels they engage with, you can boost the overall ROI of each channel and maximize your budget.

2. Properly plan your annual giving campaign.

Every campaign needs a roadmap and adequate preparation to increase its chances of success.

For example, capital campaigns begin with a feasibility study, which measures an organization’s preparedness to launch a major campaign. Because you’re dealing with fewer unknowns in an annual campaign than in a much larger capital campaign, less upfront research and prep work are required—however, preparation is still essential. Rather than interviewing stakeholders and prospects in a lengthy study, you’ll instead need to focus on reviewing past campaign performance and drawing insights from what you already know about donors.

A few of the key points you should include in your annual campaign planning process include:

  • Review past performance. As mentioned above, you should study your data from previous annual campaigns and look for insights. Did these campaigns meet their goals? Which segments of your audience were most or least receptive to outreach? Which strategies and channels did you use to reach them?

  • Clarify messaging. Finalize the overarching rationale for your campaign as well as the campaign’s goals and priorities. Make sure everyone on your team is on the same page so you can move forward with a crystal clear understanding of the core message.

  • Set an annual fund goal. Set a realistic goal for your institution to reach by the end of your annual campaign. With a set goal, you can accurately track your progress and adjust outreach efforts based on how close you are to meeting that goal.

  • Make a plan of action. Lay out a timeframe for the campaign and its various elements once you have a clear picture of past campaign performance, your core message, and your goal. Then, plan out events and promotions throughout the duration of the campaign to maximize visibility and engagement.

The preparation you do before your annual campaign can make or break its success. Be sure to devote plenty of time to this step to ensure your team is on the same page and that you have the capabilities and resources to carry out your campaign.

3. Emphasize recurring giving options and matching gifts.

If your institution struggles with stagnant annual giving rates, diversifying engagement options for annual donors can help you increase the funds you raise. Easy ways to do so include recurring giving options and matching gifts.

Recurring giving programs allow donors to automatically donate a specific amount to your institution on a monthly basis. With recurring giving, your supporters can spread the impact of their contribution throughout the entire year. Recurring donors tend to have high lifetime values, and their commitment to supporting your school can be the basis of powerful long-term relationships. By promoting this giving option in your appeals, you can build a steadier year-round stream of unrestricted support rather than relying too heavily on just one annual campaign or season.

But there are also simple ways for donors to boost their impact on your school without reaching back into their own pockets. According to Double the Donation, matching gifts are “a type of philanthropy in which companies financially match donations that their employees make to nonprofit organizations.” In many cases, employers have programs specifically for matching gifts made to their employees’ alma maters.

Matching gifts can be an invaluable opportunity because they’ll boost your campaign revenue without requiring you to ask for more money from donors. However, the key to success when it comes to matching gifts is educating your donors about these opportunities. Make spreading awareness about matching gifts a key prong of your messaging in the annual campaign, particularly to online donors, and encourage them to check their eligibility.

4. Look for major gift opportunities.

Some schools might view annual campaigns and development opportunities like major gifts as being mutually exclusive. Major gifts are the largest gifts an organization receives, and they are usually devoted to specific projects or initiatives. These contributions are often more restrictive than the average annual donation, but they also make a larger financial impact than a smaller donation can.

You likely won’t devote much time to soliciting major gifts as part of your annual campaign. However, there’s no reason why your school shouldn’t use its campaign as an opportunity to source new major gift leads. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Use your annual campaign as a development pipeline. For some donors, annual gifts may be the first step on the ladder to making a major gift. By treating these campaigns as a pipeline to major giving, you can avoid missing valuable opportunities hiding among your broader donor base. After receiving a large or special gift in your annual campaign, you can begin the process of learning more about the donor.

  • Build relationships with donors over the coming year. Once you identify prospects among your annual givers, you’ll need to deepen the relationship over time so you can learn more about them and their motivations for giving to your school. Since this is a long process, Graham-Pelton recommends treating donor qualification and discussions as ongoing processes rather than one-time tasks.

  • Personalize your strategies. As you learn more about prospects, tailor your strategies to their unique interests and giving behaviors. Individualized engagement strategies are an essential part of portfolio management, so don’t let the time spent getting to know your prospects go to waste by letting these insights get lost in the shuffle.

Although their purpose is not to secure major gifts, annual campaigns are still valuable opportunities to refresh your development pipeline. These campaigns are often wide-reaching and can engage large swathes of your donor base, which gives you the chance to touch base with donors who might be willing and able to give larger gifts but haven’t yet been identified as such.

5. Keep in touch with donors all year.

In the context of annual fundraising, the goal of stewardship is to deepen your relationship with donors by maintaining engagement and communication all year. Creating a genuine, personal relationship means that donors will continue feeling inclined to give in the future. But neglecting to put in the work of stewardship can lead to ineffective fundraising.

For instance, if your institution doesn’t put in the work to build relationships with donors and keep your organization on their minds, your appeal for last-minute donations will likely fall on deaf ears. However, if your donors have received consistent communications from your school, have seen the impact of their past gifts, and feel like part of your community, they’ll want to help. Foster this connection with regular communication and expressions of gratitude so donors feel connected enough to want to see and help you succeed.

These strategies can help your team improve stewardship efforts to strengthen your donor relationships:

  • Send thank-you messages. Send plenty of messages expressing your gratitude. For particularly high-impact annual donors, make these messages as personal as possible by writing a handwritten thank-you letter or picking up the phone to have a conversation with them. Using your annual report as a stewardship opportunity is another excellent way to say thanks while illustrating the impact that annual donors have had.

  • Focus on inclusion. Make donors feel included in your university’s daily operations by providing them with important updates. For example, if the institution has named a new president, send out an announcement and Q&A invite to donors. Communications like these that occur outside of the context of donations help foster a more genuine relationship between your school and its donors.

  • Create and promote other ways to engage. Give your supporters ways to engage with your organization beyond just donating and receiving messages. For example, you can encourage them to volunteer, join alumni tours and mixers, complete surveys, attend athletic events, and purchase merchandise. As your donors engage in these new ways, your organization can learn more about them and their preferences.

Annual campaigns are great opportunities to check in with and engage your supporters. Make the most of this opportunity by prioritizing relationship building in preparation for your next campaign. Use communication to keep your school on their minds and encourage them to stay involved in different ways so they’ll be primed to show their support next year.

Despite how integral annual fundraising is to your school’s daily operations, it can be one of the toughest forms of fundraising to promote because it’s used for such varied purposes. With strategies like using matching gift programs or strengthening donor relationships with stewardship, your institution can build its annual fund and accomplish its goals for the coming year.


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