Bored by cookie-cutter annual fund efforts? So are we.

2012 Aug 14
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Those of us working in the philanthropic marketing space know that the alumni giving landscape is constantly changing. As new and innovative approaches evolve, older practices must continually be evaluated, reconsidered—and sometimes abandoned—to ensure philanthropic efforts remain vibrant, engaging, and ultimately successful.

One recent finding from Eduventures shows that student callers are more effective in generating gifts from alumni than other solicitation means. But by any metric, even these most-effective methods fall far short.  Just examine data on solicitation response from Council to Aid for Education’s Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey for the past 20+ years:

Voluntary Support of Education Survey

Except in private liberal arts colleges, solicitation effectiveness has decreased by one-third to one-half. Through good times and bad; inflation, stagflation, recession; boom and bust cycles; greatest generation to boomers to Xers to millenials—the numbers just keep going down. And we’ve been hearing many of the same excuses for decades, generally summed up on one dismissive phrase: “We don’t have a culture of philanthropy.” One critique would suggest that an institution that has been saying for twenty or more years that they don’t have a culture of philanthropy is doing something seriously wrong: in those twenty years, there’s been time to inculcate such a culture. There have surely been plentiful opportunities to introduce students (pre-alumni) to the “culture of philanthropy”—enlist them in the future of the institution, demonstrate for them how philanthropy has contributed to their experience, reinforce the kind of empathic relationships that would make them lifelong advocates and supporters.

Our analysis is different. We believe that there are three reasons that most annual funds show such unimpressive response—indeed, are on a slow decline towards oblivion:

1. They are boring.

2. They are cookie-cutter (see #1), usually featuring a letter from a department chair, dean, CEO, or volunteer and an email reiteration of that letter, often dressed up with photos—sometimes followed by a student or other caller reading from a script.

3. They are easy to ignore (see #1 and #2).

This is in part because in many institutions the annual fund has been traditionally seen as the entry point for newby fundraisers—a training ground in which talented people are groomed for “bigger and better” roles as major and principle gift officers. But there is a fundamental truth about institutional finances that development operations need to take into account: all money is not alike. That’s right: all dollars aren’t worth the same—some are far more valuable and valued than others. If you doubt this, walk into the office of your institutional CEO with the following proposition: “I can get you $5 million dollars either into our endowment, into our capital fund, or as unrestricted operational support. Which would you prefer?” In this time of financial constraints, we’d be shocked—shocked!—if the CEO didn’t opt for unrestricted operational funds. And that’s what an annual fund, properly marketed, provides: unrestricted dollars that go straight to the bottom line.

It’s time to get smart and serious about new approaches, since the old ones are leaving far too many institutions without the operational flexibility they require.

— Robert Moore, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer

Learn more about Lipman Hearne’s approach to philanthropic marketing by visiting our website.

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