It’s time to renew the purpose of your leadership annual giving program

We live in the age of personalization. Whether donors are shopping on Amazon, using Google to search for the nearest bakery, or culling through Netflix to find the next show to binge, they have come to expect nearly everything they encounter to be tailored to their preferences. They likewise expect the institutions they support to tailor their communications and outreach to them and their interests.

One way to meet the needs and desires of these increasingly sophisticated donors is to provide them with more attention earlier in the donor cycle. A reenergized leadership annual giving program can help.

Leadership annual giving provides the opportunity for an institution to get to know its donors as individuals and find out their interests at an early point in the relationship. It also provides a bridge between a mass annual giving solicitation and personalized attention from a major gift officer. At the same time, a well-conceived leadership annual giving program can accelerate donors’ movement through the donor pipeline given that leadership annual giving officers typically see two to four times as many donors as a major gift officer. As gift officers do so, they can easily qualify donors for major gifts during their one-on-one conversations while increasing the donor’s annual support.

While leadership annual giving is always important, it is all the more important at this moment when nearly every institution faces challenges. Even before the pandemic, states were pulling back funding for public institutions. That situation is now magnified by the current recession and the ongoing shift of college costs to the students. A quarter of U.S. adults said they or someone in their household has been laid off or lost a job because of the coronavirus outbreak, and 32% said they or someone else in their household has taken a pay cut due to reduced hours or demand for their work (and 42% said their household has experienced one or both of these), according to a September Pew Research Center poll. The situation has led college and university enrollment rates to decline 16% and, for those students who remain enrolled, there’s an increased need for financial assistance. Leadership annual giving can provide additional financial aid, supplement academic programs and fund student services by providing a boost to the stream of annual gift income.

Leadership annual giving is critical to an institution’s long-term success

In addition to increasing income and accelerating a donor’s movement along the donor pipeline, leadership annual giving can be a crucial ingredient for donor retention. The individual attention that leadership annual giving officers provide is an opportunity for institutions to show appreciation and help donors better understand the impact of their gifts.

This understanding is the most important factor in long-term donor retention and requires institutions to articulate both how annual gifts are used and the important difference they make. However, it’s not something organizations are used to doing for annual gifts. The effort it takes to track the uses of these gifts in aggregate, find compelling examples, and share with the donors is a modest investment for the retention return.

Many institutions employ a donor recognition society with a leadership-level annual gift as the entry point, providing an incentive for donors to increase their giving. Including thoughtful stewardship in a leadership annual giving program will inspire donors to repeat and increase their gifts, strengthening the institution’s broad base of support.

Is your leadership annual giving program working?

Given the potential benefits of a well-run leadership annual giving program, it’s important to evaluate how your program stacks up. One way to do so is to assess retention objectives by looking at the percentage of annual giving donors who subsequently repeat their gifts. Another way is to look at the percentage of donors who upgrade their gifts. While you may want to look at industrywide benchmarks to get a sense of how your program compares to peer institutions, it is more important to look at your program’s trend lines over time to determine the effectiveness of your efforts

Another important gauge is the number of major gift prospects who have been identified and qualified by leadership annual giving officers. That metric enables you to quickly assess whether donor conversations are focused and meaningful, in addition to how donors are moving through the pipeline.

In addition to the benefits that leadership annual giving provides to your overall advancement program, it also can help your institution grow and retain talent by providing a career path for promising early-career fundraisers or others who want to enter fundraising. A leadership annual giving position provides the opportunity to gain some experience in prospect qualification, personal gift solicitation, articulating a case, and developing and implementing a strategy. It provides the opportunity for professional growth and for early-career professionals to determine if a career in fundraising is appealing. Staff members who have a career path and opportunities to acquire new skills in an organization are far more likely to stay with the organization.

Leadership annual giving can thrive at this moment

Leadership annual giving requires a rapid pace. Leadership annual giving gift officers must meet with dozens or even hundreds of donors over the course of a year. The virtual environment may make that easier given everyone’s familiarity, and increasing comfort, with video calls. After all, it is often easier to get on video call than it is to deal with the logistics of coordinating schedules and meeting somewhere, not to mention that it’s safer during a pandemic. Donors may be more likely to make time for a quick video call with a gift officer they haven’t met yet, rather than take time for an in-person meeting. Video technology also makes it easier and more cost effective to connect with donors who live in widely dispersed geographic areas.

Leadership annual giving can provide a crucial lifeline to institutions that prioritize and invest in it. That focus not only can help now, it will also likely generate benefits for years to come.


If you need assistance renewing the purpose of your leadership annual giving program, please reach out to Laura at lsimic@grenzglier.com.


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About the author

Laura Simic

Vice President

Laura Simic, Vice President, brings more than 35 years of experience in fundraising and executive leadership in public and private higher education to the GG+A team.  She has frontline development officer and two decades of executive leadership experience encompassing all areas of advancement including alumni relations, advancement services, communications, annual…