Soliciting Trustees for Annual Fund Gifts

Posted on 07/21/2019

Asking for a gift from a trustee, or any group of key leadership volunteers, is delicate business. This is particularly true when it comes to soliciting an annual fund gift. Ideally, the expectations for trustee annual giving are clearly understood, especially in advance of joining the board or signing capital campaign commitments. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Some institutions communicate clearly with trustees regarding their role as annual fund leaders, in terms of both gift amount and timing. They might ask for a specific amount (e.g., $5,000) or use gift clubs to imply the expected level of support (e.g., “remain a current member of the leadership circle”). Other institutions discuss trustee giving in more general terms. They might ask trustees to include the institution among their top few philanthropic priorities or request that a specific percentage of total annual fund support (e.g., 20 percent) come from trustees each year.

Regardless of how clear the expectations are, the advancement team still needs to go through the process of soliciting trustees (or at least reminding them) when it’s time to make their gift. The best way to do this is not to include them in general mailings or appeals. As standard practice, trustees and volunteer leaders should be excluded from all annual fund appeal lists throughout the year. Trustees are a special and important group, and their appeals warrant the highest level of personalization. 

What’s more, a mailed appeal should never be the first time trustees are receiving a request for annual fund giving. Institutional leadership should be talking to trustees regularly, both as a group and individually, about the annual fund as part of their regular communications. Those conversations should address how the annual fund is defined, what the results have been in terms of revenue and participation, and the overall impact it is making at the institution. After this important groundwork has been laid, you’ll be ready to make the appeal—and, more important, they’ll be ready to receive it. 

Here are a few simple steps to take to make sure your team is maximizing your trustees’ annual fund solicitations each year: 

  1. Schedule time to meet with your chief advancement officer. This should be the first step in your solicitation process and take place twice during the year, in the early fall and again in the spring. Make sure that you are on the same page in terms of how the ask will be communicated and that you have a plan in place not only for producing the appeal but also for preparing your trustees to receive it. 
  2. Determine the right annual fund ask. Start by generating a list of trustees that includes basic biographical information along with their recent giving over the past few years. Be sure to break out total giving or any campaign commitments from annual fund support. Review the list with prospect managers to determine ask amounts and identify anyone who should be withheld or who needs special handling. Specific asks are ideal, but in some instances it may make more sense to leave requests general and unspecified.
  3. Identify the most appropriate solicitor or signatory for the appeal. Ideally this would be a fellow trustee, but other key volunteers, like a campaign committee chair or the annual fund chair, could also be a good choice. Steer clear of asking a staff leader or the president to sign since these individuals are typically accountable to the board.
  4. Draft your appeal. Start by focusing on the big picture when making your case. Describe your annual fund’s impact and offer critical data points to support the ask, such as the percentage of annual fund support that has come from trustees in the past and the goal for the current year. Continue to educate your trustees by reiterating how the annual fund differs from other types of support like the endowment, capital investments, or planned gifts. Make sure that you’ve secured support for your message by sharing a draft with your advancement head and possibly even the president or head of school.
  5. Produce and send the letter. This may seem easy, but it is no less important. Manage the production process in-house instead of relying on a vendor so that the appeal letter can be reviewed once printed and personalized with handwritten notes. Consider additional touches that will highlight its importance, such as sending it via priority mail and using a larger envelope. Be sure to include a response vehicle and a reply envelope addressed to the head of the annual fund or other senior advancement staff member.

One of the most important things an annual fund can do is to solicit support from your institution’s key volunteers, which is why these appeals need to be carefully planned and executed. If mistakes are made, the risk if high. But done well, solicitations of trustees can have a tremendous impact on your annual giving program.

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