Connecting Stories and Statistics

When I was hired by my alma mater (The University of Southern Mississippi) in 2011, it was to rebuild their annual giving program. Annual Giving had been neglected for about 10 years and when the organization was trying to complete several important building programs, they realized the major gift pipeline had slowed to a drip.

Well…the leaders who hired me had realized this. Board members, other staff, and campus partners were still skeptical. “Why should we put our time, budget, and support behind this effort, when the gifts are so small?” I had to find a way to make the benefits of annual giving apparent to them. I knew that annual giving was key to long-term growth in fundraising for the whole organization. How could I tell them the same story in a vibrant way?

You see, to have a productive annual giving program, it is necessary to begin by answering the question: “Why is annual giving an important part of the overall fundraising puzzle?” Answering this question will help you clearly illustrate the connection between annual giving and overall fundraising success. This can help you unlock budgetary resources, allies, and other support, which will make your work easier, more joyful, and more successful sooner.

This inquiry led me to define for myself “The 5 Pillars of Annual Giving.” I used these pillars to change the way I reported about my progress, changing it from a merely quantitative dollars and donors report to a layered qualitative storytelling experience with strong statistical support.

Let’s start with a clear understanding of the three main categories of philanthropic gifts…annual giving, planned giving, and major gifts.

All three categories can overlap or be solicited at the same time but they have distinct qualities. Annual gifts are gifts that are usually made to support the ongoing budgetary needs of an organization. They are mostly under $10,000 and even under $1,000. Annual gifts are solicited through mail, phone, email, social media, and peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns.

Planned giving is a special category of giving that includes gifts made from a donor’s estate (usually only being “realized” after death). There are many forms a planned gift can take including but not limited to a bequest, naming an organization as the beneficiary of an IRA or insurance policy, and various forms of trusts. Planned gifts prospects often come from the annual giving campaigns, because those donors are regular and loyal. While annual gifts are often more modest amounts, planned gifts (which include assets, not income) can be very large, even from donors of seemingly modest means.

Major gifts are gifts above a certain level (often $10,000 or more), and they include donor assets while they are alive. These are often gifts to special campaigns. Also referred to as “stretch gifts,” major gifts help start endowments or build long-term capacity such as a brick-and-mortar building campaign for instance.

Annual giving is an important vehicle for fundraising because it uniquely provides:

  1. Lead Generation: To feed the major and planned gift pipelines, generating leads and cultivating donors year to year;
  2. Dollars and Donors: To generate dollars for the philanthropic needs of your organization and provide a personal touch for all donors regardless of level helping to retain donors from year to year;
  3. Acquisition: To acquire new donors and expand the donor base, increasing participation in the life of your organization;
  4. Data Enrichment: To regularly update demographic information both through research and direct contact with prospects; and
  5. Public Relations: To foster good feelings among your constituents and educate them regularly about philanthropy.

Track back your major donor stories

Instead of just reporting to our foundation board about dollars and donors, I started to tell stories. I took well-known major donors, and I used their donor profiles to show when they made their first gifts, how long ago that was, and how much those gifts were.

Most donors who make six, seven, and eight figure gifts begin by making modest gifts to the annual fund. I’ve done case studies on this at all of the organizations I’ve worked for, even when the major gifts were considered a “surprise” by leadership. Many times, major donors are perceived as “coming out of nowhere,” when in reality, they have been carefully cultivated by the annual giving program for decades.

Don’t forget about planned giving prospects

Another aspect of lead generation is the strong connection between long-term annual fund support and planned giving prospects. The more years of steady support, the more likely a prospect is to make a planned gift to your organization. In fact, a Giving USA study found that most planned giving donors had been giving to that organization via the annual fund for 20 years.

Because planned gifts are made from assets, these gifts are much larger than their annual support (see “Study Shows Strong Annual Donations From Planned Givers” from the Chronicle of Philanthropy”).

Highlight donor acquisition and re-acquisition

Donor acquisition is an often overlooked benefit of annual giving. This is another way that annual giving builds the donor pipeline. This number should be a part of any annual giving report. During my tenure at the USM Foundation, the total number of yearly donors increased from about 3,000 to over 8,000. That’s 5,000 newly engaged annual donors, many of which will go on to make significant major and planned gifts to the organization.

Data integrity and enrichment

Don’t forget to highlight the important work your area does in data integrity and data enrichment. Data integrity is the current quality of your data. For instance, if you get really high bounce rates on the emails your org sends out, that’s a sign of poor email data integrity.

Data enrichment is adding new, valuable information to records in your database. Increasing the number of folks in your database for whom you have complete employment info would be a measure of data enrichment. They are both important and annual fundraising campaigns are often integral in both efforts.

Every major gift officer knows the frustration of finding a wonderful prospect but not having up-to-date contact information. In every report you make to the board or your fellow fundraisers or program staff, highlight how many new addresses, cell phone numbers, and email addresses you have updated in the last year. Make sure to note that annual giving often facilitates the collection of important data like employment information.

Foster those good feelings

Make sure you cite how many conversations happened through annual giving (whether or not they resulted in a gift). How many letters do you send out in a year? Annual giving staff often talks to more constituents than any other single entity in an organization. Make sure you also mention how many jobs your call center provides (if you have one). Annual giving is often a huge part of the overall marketing and communication for a nonprofit organization. Don’t let that go unnoticed.

Practical actions to take

In summary, when you are talking with decision makers or potential allies around your organization, make sure you don’t just focus on the dollars that annual giving raises. Give a holistic picture of all that annual giving adds to the life of your organization.

If you want to hire another staff member to support your efforts, or you want to do a new event next year, or you want to do four mailings instead of two, you’ll need the support and resources of folks who believe in what you are trying to accomplish. Cultivate that support through your reporting by connecting stories to statistics.

To get you started, I have included a worksheet so you can tell your best “5 Pillars of Annual Giving” story in the next report you give. Go on a treasure hunt in your database and see what stories you can tell with the data.

Worksheet Download

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Download Worksheet »


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About Jessica Cloud

With over 20 years of fundraising experience, Jessica has worked for the Starr King School for the Ministry, The University of Southern Mississippi Foundation, The University of South Carolina, RuffaloCODY, and the Libertarian National Committee. As a consultant, Jessica provides her fundraising services to nonprofits and higher education organizations. You can find her at Real Deal Fundraising.

Jessica Cloud, CFRE, MA
Fundraising Success Coach


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