What I wish I knew about annual giving: A conversation with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Kim Mougenel and Kutztown University Foundation’s Jayanne Sevast

There’s a lot more to annual giving than meets the eye. For many, annual giving conjures up phonathon and mail appeals. But annual giving is a dynamic, ever-evolving area with new technologies and tools, fresh approaches, and innovative work being rolled out all the time.

To help us better understand the pivotal role annual giving plays within their organizations, how an annual giving career can progress, and how the pandemic impacted annual giving work, Andrew Allred, GG+A Senior Vice President, Asia-Pacific, recently hosted a webinar featuring Kim Mougenel, Director of Prospect Management at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Jayanne Sevast, Director of Development, Annual Campaigns at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

Below you’ll find some highlights of that conversion. To view the entire webinar, click here.

AA: What do you wish that you knew about annual giving before you started?  

JS: I wish I had known that I could definitely make a career out of annual giving. I started my career in alumni relations and then moved into annual giving. Everybody told me that the next natural step in my career would be to move into major gifts, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do that. I know now that major gifts are a wonderful career, but I worried I would miss the detailed work of annual giving if I went that route. That said, I also didn’t know if you could really make a full-time gig out of annual giving while continuing to grow and learn and take on progressively more responsibilities. I now know that certainly is the case and I am very glad I chose annual giving.

KM: I started in annual giving in the early 2000s at Dana-Farber and I was always told it was just a steppingstone to get into major gifts. But, over the course of my career, I realized that there’s so much variety to the program—whether it’s looking at data, to doing marketing, to stewardship—that has really kept me interested over the course of my career.

AA: It’s good to hear that from both of you because there are great advancement opportunities for annual giving gift officers throughout their careers. Kim, what role do you see annual giving playing in a major advancement shop? And why is it more than just the annual fund, which so many people think it is?

KM: That’s a good question. I think annual giving has a connotation of a transaction, but for us it’s more than transactional philanthropy because when we meet with donors, we’re really looking at their giving holistically. If we can impress upon them the importance of giving to annual giving and giving to the unrestricted funds, that’s great. But if we can also talk to them about things that might happen in their lifetime that could influence further or different kinds of giving in the future, that’s even better. So if they have a windfall, if they have recently drafted their estate plans, if they have an inheritance, those are all kind of points across the lifetime of the donor that we want to impress upon them to think about us as more than just giving to the annual appeal.

AA: Jayanne, you’re at a University where the annual fund is king. How do you let everybody realize that your philanthropic needs are more than that?

JS: When I talk about annual giving, I often say that we’re community builders, we are connectors. We have the opportunity to introduce giving and to make it comfortable and relatable and achievable for so many constituents. We are helping to build that foundation and identify those passions. Through the collective community support of those gifts we can have a much larger impact. It’s important to remember that in annual giving, we are those immediate first connectors and can really help keep people connected throughout various touch points.

AA: At a big shop like Dana-Farber where there are so many different entry points for donors—events, annual giving, planned giving, major gifts—how do you collaborate in a way that ensures that you’re not tripping all over each other and irritating the donor by all approaching him at the same time?

KM: One thing we do really well is that we have strong organizing principles. That means that when a gift comes in, it doesn’t spark a whole new conversation about what we should do with it. Instead, we follow agreed upon business rules that help us navigate with the donor.

We also have to acknowledge the level of expertise that sits across the organization and really figure out what is the best place for this donor to land and what do we think the path forward is for them.

AA: What is the top tip you would give a new fundraising professional who is just dipping their toes into annual giving?

KM: Talk with donors. That’s true regardless of their role because you really have to understand what the donors are responding to, why they support your organization, and what you can do to help encourage that moving forward so you know if you’re at a higher ed institution going down to the phonathon and making some calls—or even making some thank you calls if you’re not that comfortable with making solicitations. Getting the discipline of getting on the phone and talking to donors is something that will serve you well in your annual giving career.

JS: Dig through the files. I’m not talking about your donor files but the files that may have been left by your predecessor. I also suggest looking at what appeals have gone out, as well as talking with your colleagues in marketing or communications and alumni relations to see what’s been done because you may have a really fantastic idea and think you are bringing this really innovative idea and concept, only to learn that it had been tried and fell flat or that it landed in a completely different direction over time.

The other thing I would say is to take the time to get to know your organization’s style guide. That can give you a good sense of the types of language or expectations are that donors expect to see in terms of appeals. That investment on the front end can save you significant time on the back end.

AA: Annual giving has evolved and the depth of it has evolved. What is the best change you’ve seen?

JS: Technology has allowed us to better target and examine our donors and to take a look at the ways to best reach them. I do have a word of caution on that though because you there is sometimes too much technology and you do not need to have every technology in place to have a strong successful annual giving program.

KM: Having the data analysis on the backend has brought the program forward. When we do modeling on certain segments, when we test that that model to ensure that we’re targeting the right people, I think that’s really helping us kind of really focus and to ensure that with our large prospect tools that were reaching the right people and talking to them in the way that they prefer to be talked to.

AA: Annual giving used to be phonathon and mail. Then there was email, then text messages and other new developments. Have you found new ways are better? Old ways are better?

KM: In the past year we’ve gotten a lot of people on the phone—more than ever. I am concerned that as things open up and people aren’t home as much, that we’re not going to get as many people on the phone.

I also think that you know you’ll find with a gift officer they’ll choose or find what works best for the donor and then use that as the response mechanism. If it someone’s used to email, then the gift officer will usually stick with that path.

AA: What is the change you made during the pandemic that you are most proud of and that you will continue to use even when we’re back in the “regular world?”

JS: We took a little pause. Our original giving day was scheduled for April 2020, and we decided to postpone that and, for us, that was the right decision. We refocused our energies for the fall, and we found that actually works better for us and so we’ll continue that going forward. Having the giving day in the fall allows us to get those gifts in the door earlier and it means the recipients of those giving day funds were able to utilize them faster and it also frees up on our appeals calendar a little bit more time in the spring to be creative and delve a little bit deeper into some of those special projects in terms of experiments and other things we want to try to do.

We also did a survey with the GG+A’s SurveyLab team that enabled us to ask our donors about their feelings about giving. That actually enabled us to shift back a little bit sooner than maybe we would have if it was done without data behind that decision. That allowed us to go back with thoughtful solicitation appeals

KM: We had our first-ever Giving Day in May of last year and we really wrapped our fundraising around our emergency response fund and COVID-19 relief. We approached donors with the message that cancer doesn’t stop during a pandemic and we need to keep on moving forward. We actually raised over $500,000 in this effort, which was tremendous. We recently launched a $2 billion campaign and I don’t believe that we would have been able to find the success that we’ve had so far if we paused all of our fundraising. I think being bold and innovative and helped us achieve our goals for you know having some emergency response funds for the institute’s but then also carrying on our core mission.

AA: What’s the one thing you think anyone who works in annual giving should know?

KM: Continue to be bold and innovative. That’s why it’s exciting. We can do new things.

JS: Understand how it all flows together. The donors aren’t yours, they’re your institution’s donors. You can get caught up with wanting to show the success of this effort or that, but ultimately, they’re part of one equation. Knowing how it flows together you can experiment with the ebb and flow.


If you would like to discuss your institution’s annual giving strategy or other fundraising questions, contact Andrew Allred at aallred@grenzglier.com

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