Flexibility Out of Frustration: Diversifying Your Annual Campaign Strategy

Annual-Campaignby Amy Glazer

Last June, when our office successfully closed our Annual Campaign, I celebrated for a few minutes before glancing at my colleagues and saying, “And tomorrow we’ll be at zero again!” This paradigm is what makes annual campaign fundraising a lot like the plight of Sisyphus, ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain only to have it fall back down. Every time you reach the top, you need to turn around and do the same thing all over again.

In my nearly 18 years of annual campaign fundraising, I have learned that diversifying cultivation techniques, message delivery, and solicitation strategies are the keys to maintaining a sound fundraiser and keeping donors interested and engaged. Here are five strategies I have developed to help create a fresh annual campaign each year.

Find New “Mini-Causes”

At the end of the day, we all know why we need an Annual Fund – to close the operating gap. We also know that most donors are not motivated to pay for the electric bill or the accountant’s salary. Instead, they prefer to be part of something more inspiring and transformative. So how do you make the same product or service feel unique each year?

This is when “mini-causes” come into play – new programs, activities, or resources your organization launches each year. Take the time to tease those out, and make them the story you tell donors. A few years ago, our school was fortunate to receive a generous capital gift for new microscopes. What transpired, however, was the need for additional annual support to pay for accompanying microscope specimens, professional development for the science teachers, and maintenance of the new equipment. The microscopes became a new story for the Campaign – and a new cause.

Create Micro-Messaging

Many of us have comprehensive donor data bases. We work hard to ascertain how a donor is affiliated with our organization, to which appeal they respond, and what time of the year they like to give. This information should be integrated into your cultivation and solicitation approach. Use what you know about your donors to place them into affinity groups (segments with similar interests.) Segmenting donors into affinity groups is just another term for what I call, “micro-messaging.”

Micro-messaging replaces mass direct-mail appeals and generally worded letters with correspondence that speaks to the donor and his/her journey with your organization. For example, the message of Jewish continuity soundly resonates with day school grandparents; alumni parents are generally more interested in outreach programs that keep their children engaged with their school. Nursery school parents may value a new literacy program, while middle school parents connect through an initiative to incorporate real-world financial literacy into the mathematics program.

Spending the time to create micro-messages, and personalized cultivation and solicitation material will help differentiate your organization’s ask. Additionally, this approach enables you to relay an ongoing narrative to a specific demographic that has personal meaning. Sending more targeted correspondence personalizes the solicitation, and in turn, garners better results.

Utilize Social Media

At this point, almost all of us have organizational Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Many of us troll for ideas on how to use these instruments in order to increase our “brand awareness” and to raise awareness of our donors. But in reality – are we doing anything new or just posting the same photo stories and web links?

Why not use these mechanisms to tell an entirely new story? Over the summer I saw an engaging Annual Report on Instagram for the Calgary Zoo. The organization used photos of visitors, children, numbers, signs, and, of course animals, to tell their organization’s story. Short captions connected the picture to the mission of the organization. We utilized a similar idea this year to send Hanukkah greetings. We posted a different picture on Instagram each night of Hanukkah showcasing an attribute of our school and cleverly counting the days of the holiday. To give you an idea, we photographed eight students dancing in our studio with the caption, “Eight Dancers.” Each picture carried the same hashtag, creating a “trend.”

Another example is the creation of our “Masterpiece Monday” exhibit on our Facebook page. This Facebook “event” displays art projects from our student gallery and the school’s art program. We produced a video and uploaded it to YouTube to highlight our fall campaign; however, we also linked the video through an email blast and Facebook post. We make sure each push-out has a mechanism to re-direct people to our website. Thinking of new stories to tell, and utilizing social media to push out those stories, is a great way to differentiate each Annual Campaign.

When using social media, it is important to stay ahead of the curve and avoid being repetitive. Last year’s creative Hanukkah video may feel stale this year. Social media is an important tool in your toolbox, but should be use creatively and strategically.

Everyone Counts

As fundraisers, it’s pretty easy for us to fall into the money trap. “How many dollars until we reach the goal?” is the commonly uttered phrase. In annual fundraising, securing these gifts makes us feel like we’re crossing items off our “To Do” list. Did the Cohen’s gift come in yet? Have I called the Brown’s to ask them to increase by $1,000?

Turning our donor pool’s attention to other goals is a good way to engage them, and to attract their support at the same time. Many in the field call this technique “Friend-raising” but I think this goes beyond garnering good will.

There’s a common operating principle in planned giving that a donor with a planned gift is more likely to be an annual donor. Why? Because that individual feels permanently invested in and connected to the organization. There are many ways professional fundraisers can create bonds with their donor base that may ultimately lead to a planned gift. In meantime, try to engender the same loyalty that will result in an annual investment.

Not everyone likes to solicit for money, but many enjoy volunteering. Finding volunteer jobs, such as working on an event, developing a new campaign, or calling others to say “thank you” are great ways to increase involvement in your organization.

Community-building events, such as small parlor meetings or “lunch and learn” programs are also ways to connect your base with your mission and help them form connections with the organization. I don’t like doing pitches at these events. I think an appropriately timed after-the-fact solicitation is a much better way to remind potential donors of your organization’s mission and to ask for their support.

Finally, focusing on participation rates is a non-threatening mechanism to solicit a larger donor base. First gifts are always the hardest to secure. Running a campaign based on the number of gifts – not just raising a pre-determined amount of money – can empower smaller donors, and encourage them to participate. In turn, larger donors will begin to see the outreach as a way we symbolically “spread the wealth” and prevent them from feeling they are carrying the entire burden of a campaign.

Not an easy road

In today’s complex economic climate, there is much competition for a donor’s annual campaign dollars. Fundraisers have a choice: we can follow the time-worn road of Sisyphus, or follow the lead of Proteus, Sisyphus’s foil, who by changing his shape avoided a similar destiny. Proteus is a derivative of the word “protean” and the positive connotations of flexibility, versatility, and adaptability. These are the attributes that will enable us to continue to reinvent and reinvigorate our campaigns, and to remain connected to our donors, our mission, and our vision.

Amy Glazer is Director of Institutional Advancement at Support Schechter Day School of Bergen County (NJ). Amy has almost two decades of annual campaign fundraising experience.