Throughout my decades in the fundraising game, I have often spoken of unrestricted giving to the annual fund as the “highest form of giving.” The donor is essentially saying to the organization, “I trust you will do good things with my contribution, use it for the greatest need and greatest good.” Arguably the highest demonstration of trust between donor and organization, other than perhaps a split income arrangement (charitable gift annuity, charitable trust).
The annual fund is often misunderstood by donors and is certainly equally misunderstood by members of nonprofit governing boards. Donors sometimes see the annual fund in the pejorative, not wanting to give to organizational “overhead.” Board members see the work required to run effective annual fund programs and wonder if it is worth the effort given the return (smaller gifts). They’d simply like to see it “go away” so staff can concentrate on major gifts.
Both viewpoints are unfortunate representations of what an organization’s annual fund actually does for both short and long-term fundraising. The annual fund is your organization’s hedge against inflation: the gap between operations income and increasing costs of operations. It is an opportunity to introduce your organization and its mission to new donors. Most major donors were once annual fund donors. Without the annual fund, how would new donors self-identify?
Though frustrating to executives charged with oversight, these common attitudes are not the biggest risk facing growth in our annual funds. The biggest risk is what I call “The sanctity of the annual fund.” Organizations have become so dependent upon their historic programs that generate annual fund income, they often overlook opportunities to enhance results through new programs. Direct mail, phonathons, the golf tourney, the annual dinner/auction have all become impenetrable pillars of, “this is what we’ve always done.”
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