The Stranglehold of the Annual Campaign

By Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.

I found the article, “KISS That Plan!,” published by eJewish Philanthropy on August 18th, interesting and easy to follow. However, I think that I would have recommended to the development officer in question something a bit different.

I would have suggested, How about looking at the annual campaign with a new lens or better yet, how about not focusing on the annual campaign at all.

I would have said, How about moving away from the constant attention to the annual campaign or what Steven Meyers in his book, Personalized Philanthropy: Crash the Fundraising Matrix (CharityChannel Press, 2015), calls the One Number – the amount raised in any year. I would have suggested, How about impressing everyone on the development team – staff and volunteers – with an insightful analysis of what you are currently doing and how that might be improved over, let’s say, three years. I would have recommended that the development professional stop just looking at “this year” and move toward a plan that asks, How do we obtain long term financial security.

Fridman and Weinstock, whom I greatly admire although I have only met Jennifer Weinstock but assume that anyone with whom she associates is also wonderful and smart, do recommend “multi-year,” “integrated” or a “comprehensive ask such as an endowment gift or annual campaign solicitation” – all of which are future oriented. They also pay attention to retention – “prioritize renewing existing donors.” But again, their focus is primarily “this year.”

I have recommended in so many postings on eJewish Philanthropy that notwithstanding that Fridman and Weinstock write that the search for a “new data platform” may “overcomplicate” plans, I claim that the Donor Lifecycle Map may simplify them by looking at the total donor pool and asking, How do we deal with each sector in order to move our entire development effort forward not just for today but for the long term.

Increasingly, articles recommending the creative use of data to inform strategic fundraising decisions appear on the internet and in philanthropy-related journals and newsletters. A piece published on eJewish Philanthropy (January 13, 2016) summarizes the issue. “In an environment where we are often judged by our most recent blog post or our next big idea, the process of collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about our work allows us to slow down and take stock of what we are actually accomplishing.” As this article states so well, “data collection” is not a “burden,” which is a common perspective. It is a component part of the development responsibility and an obligation in relation to understanding what is being accomplished and where the organization must concentrate resources for future success. And so I recommend data analysis starting with the Donor Lifecycle Map for future fundraising planning.

Below is a model Donor Lifecycle Map that was created by Sarah Clifton and appeared on the 101 fundraising site.


I have described it and its utility on the pages of eJewish Philanthropy (here and here). Maybe the only sector that really needs explanation is second-year active where people are involved with a nonprofit organization in order to secure their increased commitment to it.

In my many years of working with this model, I have come to define a “major donor” as someone who makes at least 3 contributions at whatever level the organization defines as “major.” I do so because I think that in the long run the constant scurry to obtain one-time major donors has no long term impact on any organization. The goal, in my opinion, is to keep these donors involved, giving more and moving them to the “ultimate giving” segment of the Map.

And of course “ultimate” giving in our lexicon is the endowment gift. I have also come to learn that it can be a “transformational” donation – one that is seven figures or more and used to effect significant change in any organization. The model assumes that a donor can make any amount of ultimate gifts to any number of nonprofits.

I have included below an illustration of a Donor Lifecycle Map from a Jewish organization whose data were graphed.


But it really does not matter what kind of organization the information reflects. I have used this mapping process with a number of nonprofits representing many disciplines and most maps are similar. For example, below is a model from a health care organization where lapsed donors are included.

donor-lifesycle-wlapsedSo what I am suggesting is twofold. Yes, for the upcoming year follow the ideas suggested in the Fridman and Weinstock article, “KISS That Plan!” But at the same time, do a data analysis of donor information for the past 3 or 5 years. Take a look at the resulting graphic and ask, How do I want this illustration to look in the next three to five years and how am I going to get there?

Ask such questions like, “How do I move 10%, or whatever number seems feasible, of those donors who have been giving three years (multi-year active) or more to the major/stretch gift sector over the next three years?” (A stretch gift donor is someone who tells us that this nonprofit is so important that he or she has to really “stretch” in order to contribute.) How do I reduce the percentage of lapsed donors to 5% and how do I increase the number of second year gifts so that almost all of first contributions are retained?

The measure of success of such a plan is not the results of the annual campaign but whether and how we reach the objectives that we have identified. What is even more important, the questions that are asked above are shared with a development committee and board and all of these people are involved in determining the answers and helping to reach the goals. Then the onus and pressure for success are not on the “frontline fundraiser” but rather on the team who has studied the data, created the goals and identified the action steps for reaching them.

So I am suggesting that instead of looking at the annual campaign in the short run – the one year – the answer for the professional’s “frustration” might have been right in front of her. My answer is, Let’s take a look at what we are currently doing and see how we can strengthen that which we do well and improve where we have weaknesses. And the burden is all of ours – volunteers and staff – to move the organization forward to increased financial stability.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is a fund development consultant and the author of Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising, (Wiley, 2014). Her next book, The Donor Lifecycle Map: A Model for Fundraising Success will be published in October by Charity Channel Press. Her website is