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Running the Annual Fund Marathon

Jeff Gordy

“I’ve learned that finishing a marathon isn’t just an athletic achievement. It’s a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible.” – John Hanc, running writer

Running a marathon can be one of the most physically and mentally challenging endeavors a person can embark on. It’s not something you can simply wake up and do. It requires a solid foundation with a good deal of planning and preparation. There is a certain mindset and discipline required to successfully finish the race.

The same can be said for the annual fund.

It is your responsibility, and your challenge, to plan the year’s strategy for the annual fund, culminating in your year-end appeal.

While daunting, success is possible every year. With proper planning, you can have that overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, that feeling of having achieved something great, of having completed your own annual fund marathon.

Set Your Annual Fund Goals

It goes without saying that it is important to set goals around a marathon, with the key being realistic goals. It’s not realistic to set a 3-hour marathon goal if you’re only running 10-minute miles.

The same can be said for the annual fund. The overall goal of annual funds is to raise money to cover a nonprofit’s ongoing operating expenses, and it’s a great way to strengthen relationships with your donors.

The annual fund can’t cover everything, though. Sure, it would be great to use some funds raised for other campaigns, but it may not be feasible.

Be purposeful when determining your goal. Be as granular or as broad as you’d like. Set quarterly goals. Be ambitious, but be smart.

Identify Resources for Your Annual Fund

A marathon is a challenge that requires commitment, discipline, focus and time. It’s a challenge you don’t have to do alone, though.

You may be running your marathon solo, but it doesn’t mean you have to do all of the preparation and training by yourself. It takes a team. Utilize the resources available to you. Enlist a running partner or join a running group. It provides camaraderie and a built-in team of cheerleaders.

Your annual fund takes a team as well, and not just your immediate coworkers. The whole organization can play a part in helping reach the annual fund goals.

Leverage your relationships and those of your colleagues, enlist your board, and don’t forget about your volunteers. They already have an affinity for your organization and your mission and they’re twice as likely to donate as non-volunteers.

Equip Yourself With the Right Fundraising Tools

Even if you decided to go for a jog on a whim, you wouldn’t do so if you were wearing jeans and flip-flops. You would put on your running shoes and workout gear before setting off. When running a marathon, you would certainly ensure you have everything you need including your sneakers, watch, water bottles, snack, etc.

In the same way that you have the proper gear for running, you need to be properly equipped for your annual fund.

How do you properly equip yourself? The first step is getting an accurate picture of your current database by conducting a database audit. This is key for building a successful annual fund.

A database audit focuses on three areas:

  • Giving history.
  • Relationship information (e.g. donor, prospect, alumni, patient, etc.).
  • Data hygiene, or cleanliness of data and content.

The audit provides an honest look at your database. It also forces everyone to be on the same page in regards to segmentation criteria, definitions, etc.

Check out our Database Audit Worksheet for more detailed information to review as part of your database audit.

Develop Your Annual Fund Plan

There’s no easy way to successfully train for a marathon. It can’t be done when you feel like it. It requires a good deal of thought when building out a plan and a schedule. You must ensure you have a complete, well-rounded plan of action incorporating which days and what distances you will run, what type of workout you will do, which route you will take, etc.

Your annual fund plan should be just as detailed. Since you have your goals, develop the tactics that will help you reach those goals. Your plan should address the following:

  • Staff/volunteer involvement and responsibilities.
  • Types of solicitations/communication channels.
  • Calendar/schedule.
  • Financial goals.
  • Budget.
  • Stewardship.

Developing a detailed, well-thought out plan will lead to a more successful annual fund. It is a chance to review your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and it will result in deeper donor relationships and the building of a new donor pipeline.

Conduct a Check-In During Your Annual Campaign

The marathon may be the end goal but conducting periodic check-ins can help you stay on track.

Find a half marathon that aligns well with your training plan. Use it to gauge how you’re doing, not just with your fitness, but as a test for the big race. Was your pace too fast in the beginning? Did you hydrate properly? Have the right snacks? Wear the right socks? Get enough rest the night before?

A check-in is also critical for determining whether or not your plan needs to be adjusted. If you’ve been fighting an injury you may need to build in some recovery time. Or, if you’re consistently running at a faster pace, adjust your training accordingly.

The mid-year appeal is your check-in. Traditionally sent during the summer via direct mail or email, the mid-year appeal provides the opportunity to test out your case for support before launching your year-end appeal.

When testing your case points, consider the following:

  • Determine what is being tested.
  • Set the parameters of the test.
  • Prepare the tracking methodology.

Once you have the results, review your plan and materials. What needs to be adjusted? What did donors respond to best?

You should also take a look at other aspects of your plan. Are you meeting your deadlines? Have you encountered any setbacks that require you to re-evaluate? Make the adjustments now so you have a more finely tuned year-end appeal.

Execute Your Year-End Appeal

Race day has arrived! It’s time to execute. You’re ready. You’ve trained hard. You’re feeling a mix of excitement and nerves. Your cheerleaders are there too, ready to cheer you on at various points throughout the race. You’re in the corral, waiting for the starting gun to go off. 3…2…1…go!

Your year-end appeal is your race day. 31% of donations occur in December, with 12% occurring during the last three days of the year, so all of your preparation up until this point is critical.

You’ve completed your database audit, conducted a mid-year appeal, and adjusted your plan as needed throughout the year. You’re ready.

Evaluate the Results of Your Annual Fund

Congratulations! You crossed the finish line. The marathon is complete. You should absolutely applaud yourself for a job well done. Enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. Inevitably, you’re either going to be pleased or displeased with the results. You’ll analyze each part of the race and think about what you could have done differently or done better.

It’s important to take an honest look at the race you ran. How did your results compare to your goals? Were there elements to overcome that you hadn’t planned for that you would incorporate into future training and preparation?

The same thinking should be applied to your annual fund. Once you’ve completed your year-end appeal, it is important to evaluate how you did against your goals.

Some metrics to take into consideration are:

  • If the rate of recurring donors in your base increased and by how much.
  • The number of lapsed donors made active again.
  • How many new donors were procured.
  • How many donors upgraded in giving levels.
  • The number of supporters who volunteered.
  • The amount of new constituent data collected.
  • The average length of your outreach phone calls.
  • How many people opened and interacted with your email campaigns.

Don’t forget to thank those who supported you. Thank your race group and anyone who came to cheer you on or showed support along the way.

Good stewardship is crucial with the annual fund. Show your colleagues and volunteers how appreciative you are of their hard work. Thank your donors. If resources permit, send handwritten letters.

The annual fund, like a marathon, can seem daunting. It is challenging but also extremely rewarding. With proper planning and preparation, any organization can execute a successful annual fund.

For a definitive guide on annual giving, check out NeonCRM’s Annual Giving: How to Raise Money & Cultivate Loyal Donors.

For more information on building a strong foundation for your annual fund, download The Data-Driven Annual Fund Part 1 – The Building Blocks from WealthEngine.


This insightful post comes to us from Wendy Buck. Wendy is the Marketing Manager at WealthEngine, the leading provider of predictive marketing analytics, audience development and wealth intelligence services for nonprofits, financial services, and luxury brands. She is responsible for product and partner marketing activities including product collateral, sales enablement, and partner-related marketing efforts across various channels.

Prior to joining WealthEngine Wendy managed the awards program for a software association in Washington, DC. Outside of work, Wendy enjoys spending time with her husband and daughter, running, and cheering on the Washington Capitals.

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