Raising More Money through Annual Giving – with Vanessa Chase Lockshin

Today as part of our Learn from an Authority interview series, I’m glad to welcome non-profit consultant and annual giving expert Vanessa Chase Lockshin to talk with us about how charitable organizations can supercharge their annual fundraising programs.  Vanessa is the president of Vanessa Chase & Co. and the force behind The Storytelling Non-Profit.

1. Vanessa, every non-profit wants a strong annual giving program, but most organizations think that simply sending out a fundraising letter every year is enough.  What elements go in to a robust annual giving program?

That is a great question, Joe! Having a one dimensional annual giving program is something that I think a lot of non-profits struggle with. They might feel like there are too many donors to create meaningful relationships or that it’s not really where the money is. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t respect or honor the commitment that annual level givers make to the organization they choose to support.

The solution to this is to think about how you can scale the relationship building process in order to love your donors and help grow their love for you in return. This includes things like making thank you phone calls on a regular basis, showing accountability after a gift has been made and demonstrating a certain level of understanding of your donors in the asks. You know there are also things like events, third-party fundraisers and gifts-in-kind. Every organization has their strong suits and if one of those works for your non-profit, spend the time and resources to make it awesome.

I would also just add that it important to understand that as you build your annual giving program to be more robust, the relationships will grow and the money will follow.

2. Where does the annual giving program fit into a non-profit’s overall fundraising strategy – how does it interplay with things like events, board fundraising, and planned giving?

Annual giving is usually thought of as a pipeline for other types of fundraising that an organization does, which I think is pretty accurate. It is a large pool of donors who know, like and trust an organization enough to make a gift. This makes them the best prospects for things like major gifts and planned giving. In that sense, I think that it’s important for fundraisers to spend time thinking about how to cultivate and get to know this group better. That way they can provide better engagement opportunities to their donors who might want a more significant relationship with the non-profit.

Stewardship at this level is a great way for Board members to be involved with fundraising. They can make thank you phone calls or write donors hand-written notes. Likewise, events are another way to meet some of these donors face-to-face to get to know them better and understand what kind of relationship that person might want with the non-profit. Both of these things are examples of how non-profits can get to know their annual giving donors better in a scalable way.

I always remind organizations that I work with that you never really know what your donors might have up their sleeve. Be open and be kind.

3. If you could change one thing about the average non-profit’s annual giving strategy, what would it be?

Stewardship! How you treat your donors is far more important than any amount of asking because if you don’t treat them well, they aren’t going to give.

One of my favorite activities to do with clients is to walk them through the process of developing a stewardship action plan so that they know exactly what to do every time they receive a gift from a donor. In my experience, that kind of clarity and organization can be very powerful.

4. On your blog, you talk a lot about “Annual Giving Stewardship.” How should organizations be stewarding their annual givers?

Defining your stewardship process for annual giving is a multi-step process. First, you have to know what you are doing now and whether or not it is working. In a sense, this is like an assessment. Second, you need to understand your department’s capacity. Do you really have time to plan three additional events? Do you really have time to write everyone a hand-written note? Really level with yourself about how much time you and your staff have to dedicate to stewardship. If you want to spend more time on stewardship, you might want to re-evaluate other things that are in your calendar or look for volunteers and Board members to help you.

After you’ve thought about both of these things, you can begin thinking about what you’d like to incorporate into your stewardship program. In general, I recommend that this includes at least one post-gift touch point and a special stewardship piece one per year. This post-gift touch point could include a thank you phone call or hand-written note. The special stewardship piece might be an invitation to an event, a thank you video or accountability report. The point is to simply make sure you are doing more than just asking.

5. What is “Story Based Stewardship?”

Story Based Stewardship is a new concept that I’ve been playing around with for the last year or so. A lot of the work that I do and am interested in is storytelling and narrative within fundraising and donor relations. 

I define Story Based Stewardship as stewardship that demonstrates accountability and impact. Accountability means showing how the money was used, what program it went to, etc. The other side of this coin is impact and that means showing the effect of that program, service or project. The best way to show that effect is through stories. Some of the types of stories that can naturally demonstrate this include – a client’s success story, a story from a program staff member, a volunteer’s story or a story from a fundraiser who was involved.

Many organizations have the accountability part down, but they don’t always close the loop with donors to give them that real “in the trenches” look at the work they do. Stories are a great way to achieve this.

6. Should non-profits be trying to move their annual givers to a monthly giving model? Why or why not?

Without a doubt monthly giving is a great route to go. It’s a more sustainable revenue stream, a strong prospect pool for planned giving and takes the pressure off of constant asking. The challenge is of course converting current donors to monthly giving. From my experience, the best conversion campaign I ever ran utilized telemarketing. I don’t know what it is about the phone, but in this instance it proves very effective!

The other thing to consider about monthly giving is that it is not something you can just set up and leave to its own devices. It takes on-going cultivation and work to make it really successful. In that regard, it is important to think about how much time your department has to dedicate to something like this and what changes would need to be made in order to make it work. It’s not something that will work for every organization so don’t try to force a fit that isn’t there.

7. Let’s talk about donor communications.  How should non-profits be communicating with their donors?  What’s the mix between online, offline, written, phone, and in-person?

This a tough question to answer because there isn’t any steadfast answer to it. Communicating regularly with donors is a must – at least once per quarter. In terms of how that communication is carried out, I think the most important factor in this is consider what channel the donor gave through and their communications preference. For instance, if there was a donor who only ever gave through direct mail and I knew from conversation with them that they were elderly, I probably wouldn’t have much success trying to get them to donate online! Likewise, they may not be able to see a thank you video that the organization made for its donors.

I encourage non-profits that I work with to think about the two main segments of donors – online and offline – then from there to brainstorm all of the ways in which they can communicate with the donors. I think it’s good to be as personal as possible and not allow the organization to remain this large, faceless entity. So in that sense, it’s great to send make phone calls and meet donors in-person. Not every donors will want that kind of interaction with the non-profit and that’s okay! Have a way to note that in the donor’s record for future reference. 

8. Is it possible to communicate with my donors too much?

I’m sure there’s a fine line somewhere, but it’s different for every individual and organization! The thing about donors is that by simply donating to the organization they have expressed a level of interest in their work. It’s our job to cultivate that interest further.

The waters become a bit muddied because donors won’t necessarily make a distinction between general communications they receive and asks. For many of them, they think anything they receive from a non-profit is an ask. This is something to keep in mind when you consider the frequency of communication with donors.

My best advice is to test, test, test! That’s the only way you’ll be able to find out what your donors really want.

Thank you so much, Joe, for this opportunity! I’m very humbled to be able to share what I know and support other fundraisers in achieving success.