Constructing a Successful Challenge

Posted on 03/01/2024

Do you like a good challenge? For most annual giving professionals, the answer is a definite YES. Over the past decade, challenges have become an important part of many annual giving programs. A recent AGN poll found that 83 percent of academic institutions are planning two or more challenges in the coming year.

The reason for the growing popularity of these time-bound campaigns is simple: Challenges work. They create a sense of urgency, excite donors about a specific goal, and give them a reason to act now. In addition to their effectiveness, challenges provide annual giving programs an opportunity to try a fresh approach and shake up the routine dictated by the appeals calendar.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all structure for challenges, there are several characteristics that good challenges have in common. They all begin with the letter A:

  1. Ambitious: The challenge goal should be a stretch goal. It should feel big, exciting, and worthy of striving for, so that donors will be motivated to help you reach it.
  2. Attainable: But it’s equally important that the goal is not so big that you can’t in fact achieve it. You’re looking for the Goldilocks goal—one that is “just right”—so that you can report back to donors on your success and their part in it.
  3. Attractive: The goal should have a purpose that donors will care about and respond to. It should be something interesting or clever that will capture people’s attention and spark an immediate desire to participate.
  4. Authentic: The funding used for the challenge should be traceable to a specific source—for example, an anonymous donor, alumni from a particular class, or members of the board of directors. Institutions that repurpose existing funding (e.g., from their annual fund program’s budget) for a challenge can easily come across as inauthentic when promoting it. It’s important for the challenge funding to pass the “sniff test.”
  5. Additive: The money raised through the challenge should be new, additional money that your institution would not otherwise receive.
  6. Articulable: The challenge goal, structure, and purpose should be simple enough that you can explain it quickly—while still being compelling. Consider how you would promote the challenge in a social media post or text message, for example. If you can envision an interesting or cool graphic to help illustrate it, you will have succeeded in ensuring the challenge is articulable.
  7. Accountable: When gifts come in, your system should be set up to identify them as originating from the challenge so that you can report on dollars raised and number of donors who contributed. This will likely require you to create a new source code or dedicated donation forms. Be sure to take the time to set these up in advance of launching the campaign.

These 7 A’s can serve as a checklist, of sorts, when planning your next challenge. Whether you opt for a classic match, a competition, or a prize model for the challenge structure, the characteristics listed above will still apply. Consider them the ingredients of the secret sauce of a successful challenge. And have fun!

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