Yes, last year (ok, maybe more like the last 3) no one would stop talking about “stewardship”.  And the 3 before that it was all about “cultivation”.  This year we at Giving Tree Associates are spending a heck of a lot of time talking to our clients about the “Annual Campaign Plan”.  You know why?  No one has one (a plan).  Not even the big, robust charities with dream development teams.  AND – we are all confused about the definition!  Sometimes we walk in the door and annual campaign = direct mail appeal.  Other times, it means the annual gala dinner.  Frequently, it means anything but the big dinner.  And still other times (and I mean every once in a while) a nonprofit uses the term to refer to any fundraising that occurs during the course of the fiscal year that benefits the operating fund.   And then we breathe a sigh of relief.  Yes…we mean that annual campaign.

The annual campaign is the effort that an organization makes every year to raise unrestricted funds to support ongoing business operations. It is often the first and most reliable campaign that an organization establishes for operational purposes, and it is highly recommended that organizations devote considerable time and resources (including strategy work) to its annual campaign from the very beginning.

An effective Annual Campaign opens doors for an organization. The regular correspondence required allows the organization to stay in close touch with its supporters, who make up a growing database of proven donors to tap for capital and endowment campaigns in the future. Most longtime donors to an organization make their first pledge of support via an annual campaign request. The annual campaign is almost always the longest running, most predictable method for raising unrestricted funds, and should never be suspended, even in years when soliciting larger, one-time donations from the same pool of supporters through capital or endowment campaigns.

Organizations with strong leadership DO have the capacity to maintain multiple campaigns simultaneously, and it behooves them to do so, because committed donors will tend to donate more than one time when solicited for multiple campaigns in a given year. Donors come to expect your annual appeal, and are ready to give, often in larger increments over time. Never defer attention and resources away from your bread-and-butter.

An annual campaign’s reach can be as broad and wide as a capital campaign’s reach is narrow and specific. The overall target dollar amount for the campaign is typically smaller than that of a one-time restricted effort, and it follows that most individual annual campaign contributions are made in smaller amounts. That’s why it is critical to assemble a large list of potential contributors, and divide responsibility for personally contacting everyone on that list among a large pool of volunteers: the annual campaign is quite literally a collective effort that relies on strength in numbers and a personalized appeal. ‘Contact’ can take many forms, from letters to phone calls, to personal visits to major donors, to presentations and events.

It is important to remember that people need, and actually WANT, to be prompted to give. Even an organization’s most ardent supporters deserve regular correspondence and targeted requests for gifts, down to the specific dollar amount. Failure to suggest an amount to give is a common flaw that hinders many otherwise well-planned annual campaigns. When determining the size of gift to request, the easiest way is to include the donor’s prior giving history with the organization in any correspondence or conversation, and ask for a gift at the same or, preferably, an increased level than the previous year.

Another common tactic is to reward donors with a sense of membership in return for their donation. People give because they like to feel a part of something: a movement, a mission, a cause. The larger the donation, the more exclusive and revered their membership becomes. It can be effective to match ‘titles’ with dollar amounts: donors who give $500-$1,000 to a summer camp, for example, might be listed as ‘Friends’ of the organization in the annual publication of donors. People who give $1,000 – $2,500 are ‘Benefactors.’ Those who give $5,000, $10,000, or for some organizations, $25,000+, might be welcomed into the ‘Director’s Leadership Circle,’ and be invited to an annual event honoring their commitment at the highest levels of annual giving.  Donors like low- to no-cost ‘perks’ as thank-yous for their support, so look for ways that your organization can offer meaningful recognition to donors; the closer a donor feels connected to the organization’s cause and operations, the greater their commitment will be in future campaigns.

An Annual Campaign is designed to raise operating dollars. At the same time, it raises the organization’s profile in the community and offers opportunities for press releases, newsworthy events, spreading the mission, meeting prospective constituents and staying in touch with existing ones. Before an organization can take on a sophisticated capital or endowment effort, it needs to be savvy about its annual campaign and it must create an annual campaign plan. More on this, including “how to’s” in our next post!

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