Calling Donors at Dinner Time

Posted on 09/09/2021

Twenty years ago, a popular tactic for annual giving programs was to send a postcard to alumni with the humorous ultimatum, “Make a gift now and we won’t call you at dinner.” It was based on the notion that alumni would be asked to make a gift only once a year—hence, the annual reference in annual giving. Once alumni contributed, they’d be held out of the annual fund pool for further appeals until the start of the next fiscal year.

If you tried this “quiet dinner” tactic today, you’d probably encounter a couple of problems. First, it might not make sense to the recipient. The image of a nuclear family sitting around the table when the ring of a (rotary) phone interrupts their quiet dinner isn’t one that would resonate with many alumni now—especially younger ones.

Second, it’s simply no longer true. Annual giving programs can’t promise that they’ll ask alumni to give only once each year. New opportunities to solicit gifts are popping up every week. Giving days, crowdfunding, and other time-bound or “flash” campaigns offer compelling and entertaining ways to engage donors. In many cases, these opportunities are more in line with the interests, beliefs, and behaviors of younger alumni. But to take advantage of these opportunities, it’s nearly impossible to also control how often alumni will be asked to participate. To be effective, annual giving programs need to rethink how they contact—and ultimately, solicit—alumni.

Start by considering that annual giving programs used to spend a lot of time evaluating the effectiveness of direct appeal efforts in terms of causation. Based on response codes, managers would make observations about which appeals “caused” someone to make a gift. A lot of emphasis was placed on how much money and how many donors came in as the result of a specific mailing or calling campaign. Today, this kind of approach to planning and evaluating gift appeals is far less useful and effective.

In this new era for annual giving, appeal efforts are much more integrated—a constant and interwoven mix of marketing and communication channels. This makes it harder to know that a specific appeal caused someone to make a gift. For example, someone could receive a printed appeal in the mail and then decide to make a gift online. When that occurs, which channel deserves credit? Instead of focusing on causation, annual giving programs must consider the correlation of multiple efforts happening simultaneously and the role each plays in compelling someone to make a gift.

These days, programs are having the most success when they find ways for various channels to work together. You’re more likely to get a prospect to respond—typically to the channel that most resonates with them—if you coordinate your communication effectively around a common message or goal. Even if it happens more than once a year or (gasp!) during dinnertime.


This article has been adapted from the book Ideas for Annual Giving by Dan Allenby. Copyright (c) 2016 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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