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Philanthropic Culture in the Annual Fund


Building A Culture of Philanthropy! Does Your Organization Have a Culture of Philanthropy?  What’s Your Philanthropic Culture?  GET YOUR BOARD ON BOARD!

I dunno, sometimes I think the only culture I get is from yogurt.


Ba dum bum. *cymbal*

Discussing the development of a culture of philanthropy is absolutely the right thing to do.  Working towards a culture of philanthropy should be a high priority.  Tirelessly working towards it should be Job #1 in an NPO.

But it’s very hard to do when there are so many non-fundraisers who have negative views of fundraising.  Say “fundraising” to a non-fundraiser and they immediately think the multiple emails and hundreds of letters and tons of phone calls – i.e., primarily annual fund techniques.

Developing a culture of philanthropy begins with how we talk to our donors and prospects about giving in our acquisition and renewal process.

And how we talk to our colleagues and leadership about what the Annual Fund is.

The Annual Fund isn’t annual.

When you say “fundraising” to most people, even those in the nonprofit sector, they hear “being pestered for money.”  Rarely is the immediate impression that lovely lunch they had where someone asked their opinion and then they felt compelled to support an organization because they believed in it so much.

And, so, we get “focus on major gifts” and “let’s have more events” and “we should really be going after more grants.”  Because nobody wants to be a pest.

An “annual fund that isn’t annual” is about inviting people to be a part of something.  It’s about the donor’s interest and passions and it’s about embracing them where they are and opening the opportunity to them to be part of our mission.

This is what storytelling is all about.  It’s where donor-centered and data-driven intersect.  It’s creating a sense that we aren’t pestering the donor for money, but, instead telling the donor the incredible impact they can have.

And it’s about doing that through direct mail and e-solicitation and phone-a-thon and thank yous and a whole lot of transactional stuff that we have the obligation, the requirement, to make about them.  The Donor.  The Philanthropist.

It’s scale.  It’s doing everything possible to make that massive mailing sound like it’s written from one person to another.  It’s mimicking the best practices of major gift, one-on-one conversation in massive quantities (and massive is relative – 100 or 100,000, they’re still individual communications from one person to another).

It’s about me and you.  Mine and yours.  And what we can accomplish together.

Like any good journey, the development of culture starts with one step, one person and a passion to change the world.



That’s Not a Major Gift

At least five times over the last week or so I’ve heard the statement, “$x level is NOT a major gift; don’t waste your time on those” or “Those low-level donors aren’t giving major gifts.  They’re nice gifts, sure, but they’re not major gifts.”

Let me tell you about Jane.  I adore Jane.  She was accidentally invited to a recognition event that her donation technically didn’t entitle her to.  She gave $50 per quarter, over one year, for a total of $200.  On a credit card.  For five years, faithfully.

Jane LOVES . . . no, she LIVES the mission.   And at this event she said to me, “I so wish I could do more; I’m retired and I know I can do the $200, but anything more and I’m worried I wouldn’t be able to pay it off, but I WISH I could do more.”  I reassured it that she was appreciated, we had a lovely conversation and now every time I see Jane – which is frequently – we talk about grandkids and dogs and wonderful, wonderful things.

We did have a brief conversation, early on, about giving $50 monthly.  Which she realized she could do very easily, she’d just never thought about it from a monthly perspective.  Jane now gives $600.

And that’s a major gift.

For Jane.

Does it meet the minimum institutional major gift threshold?  No.  Is Jane recognized as a major donor?  No; she doesn’t want to be.  Does Jane get a yearly stewardship lunch at a fancy restaurant?  No.  Sometimes I run into Jane at Starbucks and I do buy her coffee.

But everybody in administration knows Jane.  And sometimes we talk to Jane about ideas and upcoming ideas.  And we know that Jane is giving, right now, at the highest level she can.  And, oh my gosh, do we appreciate her.

There are plenty of other $600 donors who just write a check in response to direct mail.  And there are some major gift donors who do the same – they don’t want lunch or courting or schmoozing, they just respond.  God love ’em.  And they’re at or above the “identified major gift threshold.”

Can an Annual Fund Director afford to invest in every $100 donor to find their Jane?  Of course not, absolutely not – especially in large-volume shops.

But Janes – like cream – ALWAYS rise.  There’s always a Jane, popping up like a prairie dog going, “Anybody paying attention to me?”

And to say, “Don’t waste your time on Jane” means you missed out on a really lovely relationship.  That may – or may not – turn into a deeper engagement for both of you.

The trick is to recognize the Janes when they come your way and not have a preconceived idea that says, “Well, can’t do anything for her because it’s not a major gift.”

For Jane it’s a very major gift.

The Annual Fund Isn’t Annual II

In the last post, I said that the Annual Fund isn’t annual.  Indeed, that’s the crux of this whole blog – thinking about the annual fund differently.

“Well, but the blog is named ‘Annual Fund’ and that’s what everyone calls it – the Annual Fund.”

True statement.  We don’t have a better name yet – as an industry.  Think how prolific that phrase is in the fundraising culture:  Annual Fund, Annual Giving, the Annual Fund Director, Director of Annual Giving and the list goes on . . .

In our very nomenclature we’re telling donors that it’s only a yearly thing.

It’s very, very rare for a nonprofit to go out of business because its mission has been completed.  Even those that find a cure, end hunger, house the homeless, place all the animals, create equality re-invent themselves to tackle a new problem or an offshoot of the one they solved.

“General operating support isn’t sexy.”  No, no it’s not.  But what does general operating support — the annual fund, if you will — really mean?

A colleague of mine says, “If we don’t have the people and the places to run the programs, they don’t happen.”

If we don’t have refrigerators to store food and nurses to take of the sick and stagehands to rig the shows and teachers to teach the kids, we don’t have food banks and hospitals and theaters and schools.

General Operating Support is sexy as hell.

The Annual Fund Isn’t Annual

Nor is it a Fund, but more on that later . . .


adjective an·nu·al \ˈan-yə(-wə)l, -yü-əl\
Simple Definition of annual
  • : happening once a year

  • : covering the period of a year

  • of a plant : living for only one year or season : having a life cycle that is one year or season long

(“Annual.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.)


noun \ˈfənd\
Simple Definition of fund
  • : an amount of money that is used for a special purpose

  • funds : available money

  • : an amount of something that is available for use : a supply of something

(“Fund.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.)

So, then, an “Annual Fund” is an amount of money that is used for a special purpose happening over the course of a year.

If your fiscal year is July 1 – June 30, does your mission end at 11:59:59 on June 30 and start again at 12:00:00 on July 1?  Is there a split second when that mission is fulfilled and then starts again?

From the organizational perspective, yes, we can say that “Last year the annual fund raised $500,000 and hit goal!” But from a donor-centered perspective, the “annual fund” is ongoing and never-ending.  An annual fund donor is supporting the heart of the mission, the very reason for its existence.  And that’s not just a one-year thing.

Sure, “General Operating Support” isn’t sexy.  Neither is “annual fund.”  But if your mission doesn’t end, neither does your annual fund.

What’s the Big Deal about Fundraising?

About five years ago, as I was transitioning responsibilities to a new colleague, I was asked the fundamental question, “So, really, what is the big deal about Fundraising?  I just don’t see what’s so special about it.  You just call and ask for money.”

And it stopped me in my tracks, because I couldn’t answer the question.

At this point, I had been in fundraising right at 20 years and considered myself a pretty strong expert.  I’d worked with over 200 different clients of all shapes, sizes and focus.  I had run annual funds, capital and endowment campaigns, helped build boards and crossed over the tens of millions in dollars raised.

And I could not answer the question, “What’s the big deal about fundraising”?

I could list techniques and process and best practices.  I could cite Si Seymour, Penelope Burk and Jerold Panas on a whim.  I could rant about retention rates and donor-centered acquisition and moves management.  But I couldn’t answer the question:

What is the Big Deal About Fundraising?

And I was indignant that this . . . this . . . this . . . neophyte, this marketer, this direct response-type person would even ask.

I’m an easy mark.  Once I’ve been challenged to do something – or told something can’t be done – I have to go and find the answer.  I had to prove that fundraising was not just about asking for money.  And I had to prove it to myself.

So began a quest – one that I am still on and that I hope continues for many years to come – to answer that very simple question.

One thing I have discovered in the process is that I love the $50 donor.  Or the $100, or the $1,000 or the $25.  These generous souls give what they can and without them, the house of the nonprofit doesn’t stand.  They are the base of the donor pyramid.  They are the foundation and the entry point of (almost) all support.

So, what’s the big deal about fundraising in the annual fund?

The big deal is that the annual fund – regardless of size, focus, goal or strategy – is about building strong, sustainable relationships with people who have the passion and commitment to fulfill your organization’s mission.

The big deal about fundraising is that it’s about relationships. And telling wonderful stories that build relationships.