If you are a development professional, it’s very likely you will be responsible for solicitation at some point – from the annual giving department to the executive level leadership, solicitations will be a part of your role in some capacity. In Annual Giving, you might manage the direct mail program and phone-a-thon. As a Major Gifts Officer, you will most definitely call upon and visit your donors to cultivate them for a major gift. As the CEO, you could be tasked with wining and dining your top-level donors or treating them to golf outings and football games. In fact, if you work for a smaller organization, you could be the person wearing all of these “hats” and responsible for all forms of solicitation.
However, if you work for a development office within a larger, multi-faceted organization, such as a university or hospital, you might have others who are simultaneously soliciting your donor base unbeknownst to you – others who don’t always have access to donor wealth screenings, giving histories, or even current contact information. “What’s the big deal?” you may ask. With all these different entities raising money for the same cause, there couldn’t possibly be any competition or overlap, right? Wrong.
In today’s article, I’ll share with you the benefits of coordinated solicitation activity as well as how to create a solicitation schedule. Prior to joining Omatic Software, I served as a campaign coordinator for a college development office where, like most nonprofit professionals, I wore many “hats” including direct mail/event/volunteer coordinator, query/report “guru,” and at one point, director of their class reunion campaign program. As such, I was responsible for planning a sophisticated campaign strategy and managing an overall solicitation schedule. This consisted of planning several years of solicitation activity in advance to minimize overlap and maximize impact. Although the examples and suggestions that follow stem from my time in higher education, I can certainly attest to the importance of a strategic solicitation schedule for any nonprofit, regardless of the organization type or size.
Now, picture this – a wealthy School of Engineering alumnus has a son currently attending his own alma mater. He is a regular donor to the School of Engineering in addition to serving on the Parent Advisory Committee. Last year, he was also selected to serve as a Foundation Board Member. Further research of his lifetime giving habits and activities shows a few small gifts to the school’s athletic department as well as several football ticket purchases. This prospect is being primed for a major gift by the foundation’s Executive Director while simultaneously paying off a three-year pledge to the Parent Advisory Committee’s general fund. However, he then receives a letter from the School of Engineering with a $1,000 ask to help establish a new program as well as an email with a $500 ask from the Athletic Department for new football uniforms.
How do you think this person will react? Will he be gracious enough to support a few different departments and give multiple gifts, or will he feel nickeled and dimed by his alma mater? Worse, will he be insulted that he was asked such low amounts, or will he give exactly those amounts when he’s capable of giving way more? Finally, will he wonder why an organization that he is supporting is spending so much money on direct mail or why there is clearly a lack of organizational communication?
More often than not, over-asking your donors will lead to donor fatigue and eventually push them away. A couple of years ago the Cygnus Donor Survey reported that 67% of donors eliminated or reduced support to nonprofits that over-solicit, and that number has most likely increased since then. Attracting first-time donors is difficult and retaining existing ones even more so, so the last thing you want to do is alienate your loyal donors and over-solicit your prospects.
I have found that the best way to avoid the above scenario is to ensure everyone directly or indirectly involved in soliciting donors is on the same page via a solicitation schedule aimed to minimize cost and overlap, maximize giving, and keep your donors coming back year after year. The following tips are just a few of the things I learned while managing a solicitation schedule.
Outline Your Plan
What is your budget for direct mail, donor visits, cultivation or stewardship events, etc? Are you going to use email campaigns, send bulk mail, or both? Are you going to use social media or video/radio advertisements? Which months make the most sense to send which types of solicitations? These are all things you should ask yourself as you start to develop the framework for your solicitation strategy.
Additionally, think through how often you want to touch your donors. Sending a mailing every other month would probably be overkill – and not to mention, expensive – while soliciting only once per year increases the chances that your cause will be forgotten. Aim for a healthy balance with a mix of delivery methods if possible.
Finally, consider how you can stretch your dollars. If you send multiple mailings per year, consider removing those who have already given once this year from your subsequent mailings. You can also supplement your solicitations with email and video campaigns, pay-events, social media touches, and more.
Identify Your Stakeholders
Identify each person or department who could potentially solicit your donor base so that you can be sure to include them in your strategy. Let them know you are streamlining solicitation efforts and seeking input from others. This would be a good time to share those donor retention statistics too – especially if they are not seasoned development professionals! Not only can your stakeholders offer valuable feedback, they will also be more willing to work with you if they feel they have a seat at the table.
During my time in the college development office, we paired a major gift officer with each school department head to discuss prospects and fundraising strategy. We also coordinated solicitation efforts among the annual giving, the reunion campaign, and the major/planned giving departments so that everyone knew which solicitations were going out to avoid overlap. Finally, the entire development office had weekly prospect discussions to talk strategy, share upcoming solicitation activities, and identify which prospects fell into what categories when someone had more than one type of constituency.
One size does not fit all, and this is especially true when it comes to your constituents. Mailing an impersonal $250 ask for someone capable of giving a six-figure gift or sending a non-donor the same solicitation that a consecutive-year donor receives would be risky. Not only would these solicitations be a waste of time and resources, but you also run the risk of alienating your donors.
To maximize your solicitation’s effectiveness, it’s important to tailor your message based on your audience. For instance, you may send a “thank you for serving” to a board member with a soft ask to increase last year’s giving amount or you might send a simple participation push to an annual giving prospect. Know their interests, giving habits, and giving capacity so you can personalize your asks and at appropriate amounts. Additionally, consider how you want to deliver your message to each audience. Younger prospects might respond better to email or social media campaigns, whereas the older demographic might prefer to receive cards or letters in the mail.
It’s equally important to develop a hierarchy to help you decide which constituent type overrides the rest, especially if you have prospects with multiple constituencies. You may wish to remove Board members or prospects of certain capacity from your annual or departmental solicitation efforts. This would also be a good opportunity for your major gift officers to weigh in on who they want to be included or removed from the solicitation. Decide which of these asks is most important and what time is appropriate to devote towards each ask.
Share The Wealth
Once you have established a comprehensive solicitation schedule, share it with others at your organization. Invite your stakeholders to regular meetings to discuss strategy or post your schedule on a shared forum or bulletin board. Most of all, make sure everyone is on the same page and working together for the greater good.
Now that I’ve shared my tips for creating and managing a solicitation schedule, I’ve included a sample solicitation schedule below. Enjoy & good luck!
|First of the Year campaign to all alumni
|Chorus trip appeal; parents of chorus students & School of Arts grads; exclude 100K+ donors/prospects
|Leave your Legacy campaign to upcoming Spring grads
|Spring/Summer mailing; 2 segments (donors less than 25K & non-donors)
|Spring Gala; donors over 100K plus Board
|Halfway to Homecoming campaign for all reunion groups; exclude 100K+ donors/prospects
|Donor Golf Tournament; 25K+ donors
|Welcome to the Family calls- incoming freshman parents, last year’s grads
|School of Education, Math & Science Alumni; exclude 100K+ donors/prospects
|Football uniforms mailing to parents of athletes and past athletes
|School of Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, & Business Alumni; exclude 100K+ donors/prospects
|Back to School campaign for all students (participation push)
|all parents, friends of the college, all alumni; exclude 100K+ donors/prospects
|Planned giving mailing to alumni over 60 years old; exclude Board
|Consecutive donors dinner (5+ consec. yrs. giving)
|Fall/Winter mailing; 2 segments (donors less than 25K & non-donors)
|Homecoming campaign for all reunion groups
|Thank You campaign to ALL donors
|Thank you calls to ALL donors; “last call” for non-donors
|Thank you calls to ALL donors; “last call” for non-donors