Annual Funds: You Don’t Get What You Don’t Ask For

Part 3 of The Power of Research series by Mary Richter


In this three-part series, I am going to highlight the ways in which prospect research informs and guides the work of development fundraising officers.  I’ve relied on my research skills to support my work as an annual fund director, campaign director, and advancement director, and currently as an independent consultant. Within these roles, I implemented research most often in a few tasks which I will focus on – managing a board nominating committee, creating and managing a campaign prospect pipeline, and now, segmenting annual fund solicitations.

The Right Ask For the Right Person

Data analysis and prospect research are vital to the growth of an annual fund.  A typical annual fund maxes out at $5 million.  However, most organizations operate annual funds under $3 million.  This means minor increases in giving make a huge difference in your overall growth.

Most organizations segment their annual fund mailings by giving capacity.  This often includes an ask amount in the annual fund appeal, so it is especially important in these segments to have good research backing up the ask.  I have heard so many stories of multi-millionaires laughing at an ask of $500.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, an enormous ask of someone without the means to make the gift could be insulting and embarrassing.

You Don’t Get What You Don’t Ask For

A common strategy as an annual fund director is to split the mailing by leadership level.  If you feel that a person may be able to afford a gift at your starting leadership level (e.g. $2500), send them the appeal for that level.  If you’re not sure it is within reach, send them the appeal for participation level giving. When I managed an annual fund, we created a new category of giving at $25,000.  We sent a letter announcing the new level to anyone we felt had the capacity to give that much.  We were overjoyed that many donors joined the new level — even those whose largest previous gift was $5,000.  This experience proved my favorite motto to be true again: “You don’t get what you don’t ask for.”

How to Manage an Annual Fund

When managing solicitations of volunteers, it is vitally important that you research the people you solicit.  After all, the actual volunteer invitations should be rooted in research.  When asking volunteers for donations, research is even more critical.

Let’s say you have a donor who gives you $500 a year, but your research shows that they give $5,000 a year to many other organizations.  Research also shows they serve on the board of an organization where they give $15,000 a year.  Perhaps you know why they’re not giving your organization more, but attention from a strong volunteer solicitor or board member who is giving $5,000+ would help.  Whenever your research shows a donor is giving less to your organization than elsewhere, you absolutely must engage that donor.  The best way is to assign a solicitor at the top or next highest giving level to speak with the donor.  Occasionally, you’ll learn that the donor has valid reasons for not giving.  More likely, you may inspire an increase — even a small one — which as I mentioned before, is the key to growth of an annual fund.

Is your organization in a campaign?  If you’re looking for strategic advice about maintaining and growing your annual fund during a campaign, read this advice from The Osborne Group.


About the author: Mary Richter, a New York City based consultant, began her development career in 1997. Since then, she has supported various causes in her fundraising work.


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