Annual Giving in a Decentralized Organization

Posted on 03/15/2018

Coordinating annual giving efforts in complex organizations, especially those that are large and decentralized, can be a challenge. In such environments, different units often operate as completely separate entities with their own constituents, goals, and cultures even though they’re all part of one umbrella institution. For those who work in the central annual giving department, the day-to-day tasks of getting appeals out the door while offering valuable support to the various units might feel a bit like herding cats.

A quintessential example of a successful central effort within a complex and decentralized organization can be found at Cambridge in America. Known as CAm, this US-based nonprofit is responsible for coordinating fundraising and alumni relations in the US for the 800-year-old University of Cambridge and its thirty-one member Colleges “across the pond” in England. Each College is an autonomous entity across which more than 18,000 students live, work, and study, all spidered throughout the ancient city of Cambridge, England. Each one has its own development office and director, with staffs ranging from 2–12 dedicated full-time employees. Along with their own histories and ways of doing things, these Colleges have their own fundraising needs and goals and have established their own internal procedures to meet them.

But even the most prestigious institutions must deal with time and change. In recent years, the need for fundraising has increased in order to support research, posts, and facilities and to help meet the increased shift of tuition and other costs to students. Until the late 1990s, tuition and fees had primarily been the purview of the government; since then, however, they have been steadily rising to a current price of £9,250 per year per undergraduate student. To help generate private support and offset these increasing expenses, the University undertook a £2 billion Dear World, Yours Cambridge capital campaign.

In aid of annual appeal efforts in the US, CAm worked with College development teams to learn about their unique organization, challenges, and culture. They examined what had worked for them in the past and what success looked like for them going forward. Together they assessed various pain points while searching for commonalities and exploring new ideas.

CAm developed a centralized communications model for US-based prospects so that the great value of these diverse strategies, schedules, and efforts could be coordinated and optimized. The US team was able to view the various fundraising efforts of the University and Colleges in aggregate for this vital segment of the alumni base. They could see what worked and what didn’t, make recommendations, and then share results and ideas back with other units. The various partners gained knowledge on both individual and collective best practices while each one developed a fundraising program best suited to its needs in the US.

In just a few years, this approach contributed to better fundraising results from US alumni and friends across the board, with the number of donors and dollars under $10,000 increasing by 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively. While annual giving in complex, decentralized institutions can undoubtedly be challenging, CAm’s approach of cross-pollinating “best of” strategies, ideas, and efforts across Colleges has provided notable success.

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