Annual Fund Strategies During COVID-19

Posted May 13, 2020

We recently spoke with leaders in the field about the annual fund strategies that are working — and the ones that aren't — as they solicit support during the pandemic...

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Hilary Smiley

Assistant Vice President, Leadership Gifts, Boston Children's Hospital

We are dropping all our thresholds for personal outreach, and attempting to thank previous donors by phone. We are letting them know that our fight against COVID-19 is only possible because of their support. Although we aren’t asking for anything, these simple stewardship calls are leading to lapsed re-engagement, as well as second gifts. We pivoted a lot of our work – our mailings are all COVID-19-related now, and we are just beginning to roll out digital campaigns, etc. Thus far, the response has been strong.

The BCH Trust has turned on a dime, moving most of our events to digital. In April, we hosted a online “Discovery Forum” for select donors, where they were able to hear about BCH’s role in the fight against COVID-19. It was one of our best attended events. In addition, many of our fundraising events have had to become virtualour Walk, Corporate Cup, etc.and we are learning a lot along the way. Our CDO said to me at the beginning of all this that we are going to make mistakes and that’s ok; this has given us room to be creative and innovate, and I am looking forward to seeing the impact of our work.

I am proud to be part of this work right now and to be surrounded by a profession that has turned on a dime. None of us have the answers. We have best practices, things we have tried, and knowledge about crisis fundraising, but we always reinvent the wheel. I think it’s a really incredible time to take risks and make the work personal. People give to feel good and right now, everyone needs more of that. We can be the GOOD in our donor’s livesa reminder of the good they doand it’s a privilege to do the work.  

Amy Burke

Senior Director, The Wellesley Fund, Wellesley College

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best strategy for our Annual Fund has been to ask…every week. The Annual Fund is about raising immediate-impact (I hate the term unrestricted…yes, I said hate) flexible funds which are used by the leadership of the College to address pressing needs and seize new opportunities. In the midst of a global pandemic, the need doesn’t get any more serious to the financial health of a school. This is exactly why these funds are needed.

For us, reunion fundraising has been challenging with Reunion Weekend celebration plans canceled. It is easier to fundraise around a milestone celebration when the entire campus comes alive to welcome back the alumnae. Fundraising with our parent cohort requires extra sensitivity with messaging.  

From an Annual Fund perspective, we typically do not host events to bring our audience together. What we have done is bring our Wellesley Fund volunteers together as a way to keep them, our partners-in-crime, connected to one another and infuse some Wellesley fun during this time of isolation. In late April, we started hosting Wellesley Wednesdays with Wellesley Bingo and Wellesley Trivia sessions. We mixed up the offerings so one week it was in the evening and the next week was in the middle of the day. These Zoom sessions lasted an hour and were run by our student phonathon callers. We had staff join in to say hello and share their personal thanks to our volunteers. Winners were mailed Wellesley-themed prizes, such as notecards, socks and luggage tags (for when we can travel again). We have been asking so much of our volunteers, and it was nice to give something back to them. They LOVED it!!

Terry Skoda

Deputy Director of Institutional Advancement, Museum of Arts and Design

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) has been able to quickly develop virtual cultivation and engagement opportunities for our members and donors. We have developed a four-day per week program, all online, where 50-100 participants engage in each session. On Mondays, the curator conducts live interviews with different artists. Tuesdays introduce “Behind Closed Doors” – an opportunity for participants to have a live virtual tour of an art collector’s home and collection. On Wednesdays, interviews are conducted with jewelry designers, and on Thursdays, artists host a virtual cocktail party and conduct a craft for younger patrons. The program has been hugely successful in engaging new prospects and in raising emergency funding. For others who may be considering online programming, our advice would be to build gradually, test, and continue building!

In addition to the online programming, MAD is also conducting “Quaran-Teas” – virtual live tea with our Executive Director, which has also proven to be a tremendous engagement opportunity.

Our large annual event isn’t scheduled to take place until the fall. We are currently in discussions around alternatives, so we can’t say yet what it will look like, but we are planning something exciting!

Sharon Reilly

Vice President of Development, The Greater Boston Food Bank

Our most successful Annual Fund strategies have been the use of media, the WCVB telethon, and the radiothon. Also, Peer to Peer fundraising is very successful as well as other digital platforms, including enews. For us, trying to focus our donors’ attention on some of the priorities of our strategic plan to keep the focus on our operational priorities wasn’t as successful.

We are exploring a number of options for events, including virtual events. I know that a number of organizations have had great success with this format. We are having great success with Donor Stewardship Calls. To date, we’ve hosted three, the first with the SVP of Advancement, the second with our CEO, and the next with our COO who is the Commander of our COVID-19 Response Team. When donors understand your challenges, we’ve found that they respond in a positive way.

Brittany Shaff

Assistant Vice President, Philanthropic Giving + Digital Engagement, University of Miami

Overall we have created an engagement to solicitation ratio of 4:1, creating four specific areas of engagement before soliciting a member of our community. Since mid-March we have not solicited individuals who are employees, alumni to specific schools, current and recent families, and undergraduate seniors. We have had tremendous results with our engagement efforts that are assisting us in building a digital engagement score. We have taken this time to optimize existing technology and bring on new technology as needed. Results have been positive, for instance our email open rates on ThankView are averaging 77%, we have verified 60,000 cell phones from our student-texting initiatives, and we have grown our social engagement by over 5,000% since mid-March. As expected, being as tangible and specific as possible with our appeals has had the highest rate of return.

Our most successful giving strategy of late has been our ’Canes Tassel Challenge. Typically in graduation season, we are encouraging seniors to make their first gift to the University of Miami for which they receive a commemorative tassel. Due to our current climate, we are not soliciting May graduates to donate. Instead, we have asked alumni and friends to send a note of encouragement and a commemorative tassel to a graduate. Both the message and tassel will be mailed to each of our 4,500 graduates, and in doing so, we have provided a caused-based initiative to alumni and also are verifying May 2020 addresses. The campaign has a dedicated landing page where alumni and friends can write a note of encouragement in the process of making their gift. The fund highlighted for the channel is the institution’s Student Support Fund, but donors can designate elsewhere. However, 95% of individuals have chosen the Student Support Fund as their designation. When the goal is achieved, a gift of $100,000 will be provided by a challenge donor. The Philanthropic Giving and Digital Engagement teams have led the campaign, and it has been successful in driving fourth quarter alumni participation numbers, particularly given these unprecedented times. Our community has been very responsive to the campaign by submitting a note and donation, as well as advocating for the campaign on social media. The team also created digital ads on Google and Bing that have provided hundreds of conversions from the advertisement to the Tassel homepage.

Another success has been our Honor Your Doctor and Celebrate A Nurse campaign. Our Team built two distinct websites for both campaigns that enabled viewers to write a note and make a gift. With the use of Facebook and Instagram ads, we raised $50,000, and 1,200 digital notes were written to healthcare heroes.

In terms of events, we have transitioned fully to a digital-engagement strategy. We have held over 200 digital events and programs since mid-March that are either completely new or are revised from our existing program. Some new digital engagements we have created include: Coffee With A Cane, a bi-weekly digital series on Facebook Live with a host and speaker, and In The Know, a bi-weekly digital series centered around COVID-19. Our panelists have included UHealth and institutional leadership talking about COVID-19.

Ginger Pearson

Assistant Vice President for Advancement Administration, Babson College

At Babson, when the pandemic began, our team immediately pivoted and began to rethink our engagement strategy. We established an emergency fund and emphasized its needs through communications including the use of videos to propel its success. We are sending thank you videos from students all over the world to donors. We have hosted over 40 virtual events with guest speakers for our alumni and friends. Included in those events were giving components. Giving Day was not as strong as we had hoped, but we are still moving forward with an athletics focused Giving Day. And, of course, we are continuing to extend our relationships by actively reaching out to our alumni to simply check in to be sure everyone is safe and healthy.

Providing resources for alumni has been a priority, and we have dedicated a website with opportunities for online learning, do it yourself activities, and other resources to keep alumni and their families healthy and engaged. We have prioritized opportunities for alumni to virtually get together and have fun. We have many resources on our website including Babson coloring sheets, bingo and puzzles, and are in the process of planning a fun game night for our alumni. Lastly, we are assessing new technology platforms for different components of our annual giving program. 

Sue Beebee Gagné

Director of the Annual Fund, St. Mark's School

Our printed lybunt appeal had just landed in early March when COVID really hit. At first, we felt a bit uneasy about that unavoidable timing. However, the good news is that we have now realized our usual strong results, surpassing last year’s number of gifts and total dollars received!

With the decision to remain closed for the rest of the academic year, the School offered to refund a pro-rated portion of room and board to boarding families, with an option to donate all or part of it back to the Annual Fund. This was met with great and generous success!

Instead of Giving Day, we are about to launch “The Power of the Pride” in alignment with our year-end activities, designed to engage all constituencies, shine a spotlight on the Class of 2020, and provide the opportunity to make a gift to the Annual Fund in honor of the Class of 2020 on or around Prize Day (commencement). 

I believe that our best strategy was to hit the pause button when this all started and to acknowledge that it was not going to be “business as usual.” Instead of our usual business, we moved to an online environment with new digital opportunities to achieve engagement and giving results.   

We did several other things:  We gathered information from peer schools and industry webinars, noting the most applicable takeaways. With those ideas, we reworked our plans, adjusting our timeline—and our assumptions—for the remainder of the year. In addition to their assigned prospects, our leadership gift officers also reached out to unassigned Annual Fund donors of $1K and up (FY19 and FY20) with courtesy check-in calls. And we listened to our volunteers, who are our strongest allies. At their suggestion, we were cautious about our messages and outreach to our constituents (not moving forward with our Giving Day, for example). Now, we are asking for their help in promoting The Power of the Pride in early June.

In terms of our Zoom successes…We arranged Town Hall meetings for the parents from each Form, allowing them to have social interaction with each other, to hear updates from School Administrators, and to have a live Q&A. These were recorded and sent to all parents in the Form. They were a big success! We also met with our Alumni Executive Committee via Zoom in mid-April. Members shared their successes with class gatherings on Zoom, and others jumped aboard and followed suit. Our 50th reunion class gathered via Zoom for celebratory cocktails at the time they had expected to gather on campus for their reunion. We recently gathered our Head’s Advisory Council for another successful Zoom Town Hall meeting and have one upcomingwith impressive attendancefor our all-alumni Town Hall meeting.

We do expect to see lower participation numbers, but we believe that we are poised to meet our dollar goals.

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