The landscape

While the University of Sheffield sought to improve the performance of its annual giving program, it was constrained by its budget. That meant it had to find ways to rebalance its spending.

The solution

Sheffield in 2015 engaged GG+A to conduct an annual giving program review, conducted by GG+A Vice President Adrian Salmon.

GG+A’s analysis found that Sheffield was spending roughly 80% of its annual giving resources on phone solicitations even though that was not the most cost-effective channel for all alumni. The university’s approach also made the annual giving program overly reliant on a single fundraising channel. That finding drove GG+A to encourage the university to shift a larger share of its budget to direct mail, as well as to focus its efforts on the most productive donors within its database.

Taking learnings and insights from other U.K. institutions’ successful direct mail appeals, the university’s two-person annual giving team set out to produce appeals with a distinct “Sheffield” feel, within tight budget constraints, to exceptional effect. Within a year, income generated by direct mail had more than doubled.

Along the way, guided by Salmon’s ongoing strategic counsel, the annual giving team tested various elements of direct mail targeting and content, including tests of signatories, ask strings, and copy length.

Most notably, Salmon in 2019 challenged the annual giving team to test whether a four-page letter would produce better results for both acquisition and donor retention and upgrade. The ensuing split test found that the four-page letter variant raised more than double the income generated by a two-page letter, with a significantly higher average gift value and income per constituent. This particular direct mail appeal was Sheffield’s most successful to date, generating a record number of cash donors and four-figure gifts.


The result

By reallocating its annual fund spending, the University of Sheffield has dramatically increased its annual giving performance.

In 2015, the program’s average revenue was roughly £250,000. As of 2020, income directly generated by the team exceeds £500,000, and total income from gifts less than £10,000 has exceeded the £1 million mark (a 36% increase on the previous year). Donor numbers have also increased by 82%.

Moreover, all this has been achieved without significant increases in budget, or annual giving staffing.