The FY21 annual fund: Hope is not a strategy

Congratulations. You made it through FY20. Perhaps your school’s fundraising fell short of goals, thanks to COVID-19. Maybe you hit your goals in spite of COVID-19 or thanks to a giving surge from crisis-inspired constituents. Now, after producing donor lists for the annual report and (maybe) taking a well-deserved staycation, you’re turning your attention to FY21. How on earth do you set goals, let alone meet them, in a year when a global pandemic, economic volatility, and a contentious presidential election will attempt to thwart your efforts? And what if you’re trying to do it all with fewer staff?

This is not the year to assume that the same old methods will continue to be effective or that steadfast annual giving donors will renew their support out of sheer loyalty. As fundraisers, we will be required to work smarter in FY21 in order to maintain annual giving revenue–let alone increase it. Start here:

Clarify the case for support

A case for support? For the annual fund? Isn’t that as simple as explaining the gap between tuition revenue and operating expenses? Please, no. Expressing a clear, compelling annual fund case for support is important to sustaining and growing this vital source of philanthropic revenue for your school, but the annual giving case is an area where I see many, many schools fall short. The annual fund is an essential operating budget revenue stream, but that shouldn’t be your case. Rather, annual giving donors help the school attract and retain top-notch faculty; devise and implement cutting-edge programs; defray tuition for children who could not otherwise attend; and more. As a favorite head of school of mine says, “The annual fund allows us to make choices rather than compromises,” which is a succinct way of explaining that annual giving is essential to being the school we want to be.

If your annual fund case hasn’t been clear or compelling, spend a little time now making it more so–your donors will want and need to understand why your school is (still) worthy of their support, especially when other nonprofits will be vying for their attention and contributions. Illustrate the ways in which annual giving support makes a tangible impact on the school. Do not turn the annual fund case into a call for support of pandemic-related accommodations the school made this year, however. Annual giving was important before COVID-19, and it will continue to be important in the future.

Refine or create your annual fund gift table

When we plan a capital campaign, we chart a path for goal attainment by devising a gift table of prospects at various bands, anticipating that we will need to ask three or four times as many prospects for a gift at a particular level in order to secure such a gift. Unfortunately, I encounter many schools that, despite using it during campaigns, do not apply this practice to the annual fund. Rather, they adopt a spray-and-pray approach predicated on the flawed belief that “If we just keep asking, people will give.” If you have met annual fund goals in the past using this approach, your annual fund is probably underperforming. If you want it to perform well in a year like FY21, you will need to place more focus on top prospects.

Develop a gift table for your annual fund. Chart a path that will ensure you meet the goal by focusing on the top 10 to 20 percent of your prospects and seeking as many increased gifts as possible. When targeting top prospects with a specific ask amount, have at your fingertips the date on which each made their FY20 gifts or pledges (whichever came first) because the timing of last year’s gift (pre- or post-March 15) could make a significant difference in setting this year’s ask. Also consider whether top prospects’ business or personal financial position has been significantly affected–either positively or negatively–by the pandemic. Weigh these factors when targeting anyone in your top 10 to 20 percent of donors, and more if you can manage it. Once your targeting is complete, use it to make projections. Can you reach your goal? If not, the time to share that news with the Head and CFO is now, not later.

Segment like the fund depends on it

Now is not the time for a singular, bland message communicated to everyone. Segmenting your appeals by ask amount, constituency, and past giving (or lack thereof) is essential for a donor-centric solicitation experience. Timing will be vital as well. Many schools kick off the annual fund year by soliciting constituents in more or less the same order: faculty, trustees, parents, alumni, grandparents, and so on. Who says that appeals must go out in this order? Not I! Think carefully about when to solicit particular constituencies this year. Parents are bound to be anxious as school starts; perhaps solicit alumni first. The key is soliciting when the moment is right for donors, not you.

Lean on your board

When they join the board, trustees accept both a governing and fiduciary role at your school. In a time when goals will be difficult to attain, ask your board to step up, show its mettle, and demonstrate publicly its belief in your school. High-performing annual funds typically receive 20 to 25 percent of the overall total from trustees. If your board is already meeting this benchmark, ask them to do more in the school’s time of need. If your board isn’t meeting this benchmark, there is no time like the present to call upon them for increased support.

Build a better annual fund, starting today

None of these recommendations is pandemic-specific. Each is vital to a well-run and high-performing annual giving program that can weather challenges of any type, in any year. It just happens that 2020-2021 will be such a year.


If you need assistance developing your annual fund strategy, contact Liz Farr at efarr@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Elizabeth Kolb Farr

Senior Vice President and Independent Schools Practice Leader

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, joined GG+A in 2017 and, in 2021, assumed leadership of the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. Liz serves the firm’s independent school and higher education clients, supporting them in identifying and seizing opportunities for fundraising growth. She holds particular expertise in instituting and orchestrating…